Educators Consider COVID's Effects on Higher Education

Jun 19, 2020

The coronavirus has changed life for everyone  - from washing hands frequently to wearing masks to keeping social distance - and every segment of our society.  The realm of higher education is no different.  According to Clemson University Dean of Education George Peterson, colleges and universities are wrestling with how COVID-19 will affect their abilities to get back into the classroom - at least partially - while keeping everyone safe.

"What does that look like in a face-to-face setting," he wondered, taking into account questions such as "the size of the room, social distancing, are masks mandatory or not?  A lot of leadership teams and a lot of science folks that are working with us are asking those questions so that we can come up with a policy that's consistent but also puts at the forefront the health and safety of our faculty, staff and students."

Colleges and universities nationwide are having conversations and sharing information on how to proceed and safely provide quality educational experiences in a systemic fashion, said Peterson, noting that Clemson has not only spoken with the University of South Carolina, but he has met with all the deans of education at the Atlantic Coast Conference schools. 

USC Associate Professor of Higher Education Christian Anderson said COVID's effects could differ between public and private colleges, and could even vary greatly between private institutions.  "You have everything from the Harvards, Princetons and Yales, with some of the largest endowments in the world, to tiny private institutions that have very small endowments, and are very tuition dependent, basically living paycheck to paycheck, so to speak.  And those are going to have to be very careful if they're gonna make it through this.  And some of them just may not."  

Indeed, he said numerous small colleges already are closing or merging with bigger institutions, citing Pine Manor College's absorption by Boston College as an example.  "Some institutions were already on the brink, and this has pushed them over."

As for the larger public universities, Anderson said loss of state support because of lower tax revenues is a real danger.  "Some states have said "we're going to do everything we can to keep our institutions alive,' and others have said 'we can only do at most what we've done in recent years,' and of course in lots of cases, state support for higher education has been on the decline.  Every state is different in its ability to support higher education and, more importantly, in its willingness to support higher education.  So that's going to be another variable, the support of their sponsoring states."

Anderson is researching historical precedents for colleges being affected by disasters of the past, with a special interest in the great flu epidemic of 1918.  It greatly affected higher education, he said.  "What I discovered is there were campus deaths, campus illnesses.  Some campuses closed completely, they cancelled the fall 1918 semester or quarter completely.  Others decided to continue as normal, and those campuses often had a lot of students in the campus infirmary or local hospital.  Here are USC, three different buildings got used as campus hospitals because the city of Columbia had a lack of hospital beds."

Looking for a silver lining amid the pandemic, Peterson noted that the virus has brought about some positive outcomes to higher education.  "Conversations across universities by leadership teams, health teams, that's something that is positive...the idea of maybe expanding our repertoire and the palette of instructional delivery.  Clearly, the idea that you're working collaboratively with other folks on a complex situation.  And then of course creating policies that promote the health and well being of students, families, staff and faculty.  Those are all positives."

The educator said the cooperation he has seen between universities since the virus struck has led him to realize "how connected we all are" and how much institutions of higher education, as well as society in general, are reliant on the work of others.