As the new coronavirus continues to cause chaos and anxiety in the U.S., many colleges and universities are responding by closing up shop. Some have canceled face-to-face instruction and moved online, while others have gone a step further and called for residence halls to be emptied. One institution, Berea College, has said there will be no further instruction at all, effectively ending the semester early.
Yet some colleges have chosen to maintain classes and other services, sometimes despite complaints of students. In many cases those decisions are said to be based on individual location or the absence of confirmed cases within a college community.
In others, however, the divide seems to be resource-based. For example, the City University of New York was the subject of a barrage of social media complaints this week before the administration chose to suspend face-to-face instruction. Students pointed out that most other institutions in the city, including Columbia, Fordham and New York Universities, had already made the decision, making CUNY a holdout.
In another example, within the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, the relatively well-off West Chester University, with an endowment of over $40 million, has decided to suspend in-person instruction. But Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, with an endowment of $1 million, had not as of Wednesday evening made a similar announcement. ("We are located in a less-populated, rural part of the state, and our spring break has already occurred," Mansfield said in its latest statement, comparing itself to the PASSHE institutions that have made the switch.)
"Each institution will respond in ways that depend on their size, their wealth, the characteristics of their constituencies and the likely risk associated with this virus," John Lombardi, former president of the University of Florida and the Louisiana State University system, as well as the author of How Universities Work, said via email. "Small, rich, liberal arts colleges can do lots of things without much fallout because they have money, because they often are highly risk averse, and because they may well believe their [students'] parents are especially risk averse."
Small private colleges also have less complicated enterprises than their large and public peers, he said, which makes it is easier for them to temporarily shut down. Large institutions are more complex and serve a wider array of constituencies, he said. When they do choose to shut down, those institutions likely will experience a severe revenue hit.
Catharine Bond Hill, managing director of Ithaka S+R and former president of Vassar College, said well-resourced institutions also have better access to the technological assistance that makes going online possible.
"The better-resourced universities are in a better position to make the choice of shifting from in-person to online. They have greater access to IT resources, and many of them have centers for teaching and learning with support staff who can help faculty think about how to do that relatively quickly with short notice," she said.
Well-to-do institutions also tend to enroll smaller shares of low-income students, Bond Hill said. Although their leaders still need to be concerned about those students' access to the internet and devices, they have the resources to mitigate those issues.
Large institutions that have been financially struggling are likely to have become more reliant on adjunct faculty members, she noted. "Those faculty may be in an even worse situation in trying to help with this," she said. "And institutions are going to be a little bit more nervous about lending equipment and covering costs for faculty with whom they don't have a longer-term relationship."
Lombardi said that in some ways what is motivating choices is risk.
"It is important to recognize that many efforts to close serve to evade responsibility for any potential illness," he said via email. "We understand lots of other risks, such as those associated with alcohol and drug use on campus which will cause an reasonably predictable death toll, but we don't shut the place down because we know what the risk is and have experience managing it. In this case, although risk from the virus for most campuses is low, it is a risk we don't understand."
What the Future Holds
Bond Hill said that the challenges ahead for American higher education may be quite serious. A downturn in the economy, which is by some accounts already beginning, would mean a decline in returns for endowments, state revenue and funding, resulting in more limited ability to provide need-based financial aid. At the same time, families would be more limited in their ability to pay for college.
"All of American higher education is going to have to figure out how to respond to this," she said.
Bryan Alexander, a futurist, researcher and senior scholar at Georgetown University, agreed that there may be challenges ahead. If the U.S. goes into a lockdown, like parts of China and Italy have already done, in the fall students may be scared to enroll at a campus. With a larger total enrollment drop across the nation -- building on almost a decade of declines -- some colleges may offer alternatives to the campus model or simply choose to stay online, he said.
But it's also possible that this experience could damage the reputation of online education, Alexander said, if the hasty transition goes poorly for many places and negative stories circulate.
Depending on how the virus responds to seasonal changes, online instruction may continue through the spring, with a return to face-to-face classes during the summer. The experience of the outbreak might lead to colleges shoring up their online capacities, he said.
Bond Hill said that in the long run, online instruction may become part of a university's contingency plan. Like fire drills, institutions may run scheduled disruptions to face-to-face learning to see how prepared everyone is to work remotely.
"In the longer run, we're going to learn some things about how effective teaching online is," she said.