The coronavirus has created unique challenges for colleges of all types. Every aspect of running a college has become harder. Admissions and attendance have become difficult to predict with many students considering a gap year or transfer in light of suspended or partially suspended in-person classes. Facilities, especially dorms, classrooms and dining facilities are ill-suited for social distancing. And the finances at many schools are in crisis.
Survival for many schools will depend on how college administrators, states, and Boards of Directors respond to the crisis. But some schools face special challenges resulting from declining enrollment that started before Covid-19 and, in all too many cases, imprudent “investments” by schools financed with debt. Too many schools acted under the “build it and they will come” principle, hoping that new facilities, attractive amenities, and competitive athletic teams would give them an edge in the competition for students.
Unfortunately for many schools, those “bold visions for the future” may create financial challenges that prove insurmountable. Thus, a tragedy is unfolding. The losers will not only be future generations of students, but also America itself. Educational choices will become more limited. The college experience, as many of us experienced it, is disappearing. The economic boost propelled by increasing college attendance and completion rates will diminish. What some once referred to as the crown jewel of American education—our incredible wealth of colleges and universities—is in jeopardy.
For many schools, the crows are now coming home to roost. A steady stream of schools are closing permanently or merging. Budget deficits are growing. Enrollment of foreign students has dropped dramatically, depriving schools of yet another needed source of revenue. Students, and their families, are growing more price sensitive. State schools, once enjoying the security of regular state appropriations, are now being asked to increase their dependence on student revenues. Some predict a third of private, non-profit four-year colleges could close.
This situation is dire, but failure is not the only option. While some colleges will be goners, others can make changes to address the new reality. These changes include reducing money-losing athletic programs, mothballing or closing underused facilities, entering new partnerships with other schools and institutions, and enhancing marketing. All this, importantly, must be done while maintaining the quality of the academic programs that colleges offer. Without a quality product (the education offered), no cost-cutting, fund-raising, or marketing will work.
But more important, perhaps than positive steps that can be taken, are steps that need to be avoided. Some schools appear to be forgetting that first and foremost, schools are educational institutions. Some schools are more willing to cut faculty than football or other budget expenditures not central to the mission of educating students or facilitating their enrollment at a reasonable, manageable cost.
One example of a school that appears to be headed South is the University of Akron, a public institution that describes itself as its region’s “most influential public research university.” That’s great. So why, earlier this month, did the university’s Board of Trustees vote to eliminate 178 facility positions and 82 staff and contract employees through layoffs? And why did the Board allow more than a third of the university’s academic and support staff to leave since the start of the pandemic?
Were there alternatives? The faculty proposed deeper cuts to athletic programs. Also, although the most recent budget cuts follow others in recent years, the college does not seem to appreciate what they are doing. And, curiously, a visit to its website does not inform prospective students that the college is engaging in a type of restructuring like Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code.
There is no doubt more to the University of Akron story, and it may be unfair to single it out as an example of what not to do. But, in some ways, it appears to be following the textbook on how to kill the college.
Not specific to Akron, here a short list of sure-fire ways to kill a college or university:
First, cut tenured faculty, especially the higher paid faculty members. Get rid of as many of them as you can. Replace them with adjunct faculty—part timers that are paid a fraction of what full-time faculty make. Don’t worry about the impact on those faculty that are not laid off. Will the talented faculty who have alternatives start looking elsewhere, creating yet more instability? Maybe the students won’t notice.
Second, ignore your own admissions standards. If the students you once hoped for aren’t applying, admit anyone who can pay. Go for the low-hanging fruit and hope you don’t get sick from it.
Third, protect those sports teams! Convince yourself that they are essential to attract students. Convince yourself that alumni support will wither away if the teams are cut. And be sure to keep that high-priced football coach on the books. So what if he makes 10 times as much as a full professor.
Fourth, don’t cut your own salary. Institute a salary freeze for faculty and staff but maintain your own salary. You’re working harder than anyone else. Right?
Fifth, tell your students that all is okay. The dramatic cuts in faculty will have no impact on the quality of their education. Tell them the college is still a bargain.
This list should go on. The bottom line is that many schools, drunk with billions in federal student loans and grants, once favorable student demographics, legions of foreign students, and the belief that a college education guaranteed economic success, expanded too fast, ignored the possibility of a crisis like the one now in full swing. Now they find themselves backed into a corner. The budget is busted, and the board doesn’t know what to do.
The motto of the University of Akron is “Let there be light.” A faculty-less university can be a very dark place. I wish them the best. Their closure would be a loss to the Midwest.
And let’s hope that other colleges, with the help of $14 billion in emergency Federal aid and the likelihood of more, college leaders will remember their mission and address today’s unique challenges the right way.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy.