COVID and College: A Dilemma for Students

Pam Sornson, JD

The coronavirus is disrupting virtually every aspect of society, including when and where students elect to attend college. Newly graduated high school seniors are facing numerous challenges posed by the threat of the virus, which has already caused over 400,000 deaths around the world. Furloughed and newly unemployed workers who are considering the benefits of improving their education also face the health and economic challenges posed and caused by COVID-19. In both cases, the looming fall 2020 school term will be unique and different for everyone concerned – the students, the schools, and the communities in which those schools are located.



Three Populations: A Common Set of Concerns

Every constituent in the college sector faces the same challenges as they ponder the future of their educational institution.


Health Concerns

The difficulties presented by the virus are what’s making it so difficult to predict its course or determine a standardized, effective response.

It’s passed through contact with infected but asymptomatic people, so it’s impossible to know if or when you are exposed. Up to 80% of infected people don’t realize they’ve picked up the virus until days after exposure.

Its symptoms vary widely, with some people having only mild symptoms while others become severely ill or die. It also lingers longer in some people than it does in others, hampering recovery.

The range of symptoms is also concerning. Although cough was first thought to be present in all cases, studies suggest now that cough is only present in 70% of cases. Skin issues, decreased appetite, and conjunctivitis are also thought to be symptoms but are found in just a small percentage of cases.

The variety of symptoms and seeming fluidity of the virus’s presentation in its victims are what’s making containing and controlling it so tricky. They also make it almost impossible to ensure student safety when they return to college dorm rooms and communal living accommodations.


Economic Concerns

As if a potentially lethal virus lurking in every passerby isn’t bad enough, the losses of jobs and income are also plaguing the country. In April alone, America recorded over 20 million job losses, which pushed the national unemployment rate to almost 15%. While May showed a surge of 2.5 million rehires, studies show that over 100,000 businesses have closed forever because of the pandemic, taking millions of jobs and billions in lost revenues with them.

Lost wages also mean lost opportunities to invest in college studies for workers and their children. The pandemic will impact their financial decisions moving forward, including higher education options, as these unemployed workers struggle to make ends meet.


Approaching the Fall ’20 Semester

Students and schools are now facing barriers they’ve never considered, and questions for which they have almost no answers.


Newly Graduated High School Seniors

As a life experience, the virus has already changed the trajectory of future education for this entire cohort group. Their final days as seniors weren’t spent at graduation parties or ceremonies, nor were they able to take the formerly traditional ‘college tours’ to observe potential schools in action. Instead, they’ve been finishing classwork at home and online, and only a few lucky ones have been able to participate in ‘virtual graduation’ videos to mark this typical life milestone.

Looking ahead, student’s choices appear similarly limited. Current community health restrictions are keeping college campuses closed, and, as of this date, there is no indication of when governments will lift those restrictions. If the status quo remains into the Fall, ‘college’ may be an extension of the online learning protocols they’ve just completed in high school; many are indicating that ‘online college’ isn’t what they envisioned for their first forays into adulthood and higher education.

Further, even if restrictions are lifted, the question of whether the physical campus is safe also poses a barrier, not just for the students, but certainly for their parents. There are still many unanswered questions about how to protect from and prevent transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Many families are unwilling to commit their financial resources or their child’s life to a particular school until those concerns are alleviated.


Newly Unemployed Adult Workers

Millions of workers have been furloughed or let go as businesses closed their doors following ‘stay at home’ mandates. Many of those companies won’t survive this pandemic, which will leave their former employees unemployed in what will be an intensely competitive job market. Researchers have looked at what this population has done in past recessions to understand what they might do in the face of the current economic chaos.

The Great Recession of 2007-2009 signaled a flood of new community college students aged 25 and older who had lost their jobs and were looking to ‘up-skill’ while searching for new work. The surge mirrored similar surges in previous recessions, too, so it appears that economic slow-downs also support higher college enrollments. Currently, the number of unemployed workers is already much higher than it was back then, suggesting that higher numbers of these people will elect a return to college, too.


Both Two- and Four-Year Schools

Both two- and four-year colleges are already experiencing impacts caused by COVID:

Current students are frustrated at losing part or all of their 2020 Spring semester and are seeking reimbursements of their tuition.

Schools have canceled their spring sports tournaments and are losing the revenues those events generated.

Many are refunding prepaid room and board payments, as students were forced to head home in early March.


Things don’t look brighter moving forward either:

Many are seeing significant declines in acceptances from new students, as learners wait to know what, exactly, their college experience might be in the Fall.

International student enrollments are also down due to global restrictions on travel. These students typically pay full tuition, too, so those revenues are also off the table.

Ongoing economic challenges are causing some students to elect a gap year or put off attending college indefinitely until the pandemic recedes and some form of normalcy returns.


Seeking a Silver Lining in the COVID-19 Cloud

The impact that the virus has had on the country and the world is unprecedented, and every aspect of society, including the higher education sector, is struggling to both make sense of what’s happened and make plans to move forward. Planning for the future will require both creativity and flexibility as circumstances ebb and flow over the summer.


Expect the Worst

Most experts suggest that Fall ’20 enrollments in all schools will be down, perhaps by as much as 20%. The numbers include both new and returning students, as both groups assess how to manage their education despite the pandemic. Many of these students will elect to take a gap year rather than risk resources on an uncertain future. Others may delay starting their new school year until winter or spring. Schools will need to determine how they’ll manage their funding, considering these cuts in their annual revenues.

The federal and state governments may help, however. During the ’07-’09 Recession, Congress approved the  Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Act (TAACCCT), which released $1.6B into community colleges across the country as resources to assist with their burgeoning student base. The schools used the funds to improve services and programs to meet student’s needs. In April 2020, Congress approved a $14B package for higher education ($6B for student emergency cash grants), which amounts to just one percent (1%) of university expenses. College presidents across the country assert that at least $46.6B is more likely to offset long-term damage, so there may be more support coming from that source.


Envision the Best

On the much brighter side, community colleges should see higher than usual enrollments as students elect their less expensive option over the more expensive four-year schools. Younger and beginning students appreciate the reduced cost of a two-year community college over a four-year school, and many can also live at home while attending. This factor reduces their expenses while also relieving them of the health and safety concerns about those on-campus living quarters. Older, now unemployed students are looking for new skills, and today’s community colleges are structured specifically to meet those needs.

The schools can also consider how they can modify their offerings to help students return to campus safely and with confidence, so they can enjoy the close human engagement that underscores the full college experience.

Some schools are already considering a late start – perhaps October or November – to give science more time to develop treatments and vaccines.

Others are considering opening the campus only to first-year students, providing them with an intense entry into their college life, and setting them up with a solid foundation for their future.

Still others are contemplating limiting the number of on-campus programs to reduce the density of students on campus. They would offer their other courses online.

Each school will have to determine how best to move forward, given their unique set of circumstances and the needs of their anticipated student bodies.

As the Fall 2020 college term nears, the COVID-19 pandemic demands that colleges and universities flex their resources to address their constituencies’ sensitivities while utilizing those reduced resources as optimally as possible. By doing so, they can provide the style and format of education that promises their students’ stable and rewarding employment as the pandemic subsides and the economy begins to recover.




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