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While higher education leaders and experts may disagree on how this recession -- and complications arising from the novel coronavirus -- will play out, they all agree this is a difficult, unique time for the sector.

The spread of the coronavirus has led many institutions to close and pivot to online. S&P Global just announced that the world is in a recession. Moody's Investors Service moved higher education's outlook rating from stable to negative.

Institutions with large endowments and storied reputations are bound to survive. But what about community colleges and open-access institutions, which serve the most vulnerable and underrepresented students?

"In some ways, I think open-access institutions are very prepared because they're used to dealing with the very immediate issues that students have," said Robert Anderson, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

However, Anderson is concerned about whether these institutions, which spend thousands less per full-time-equivalent student than research universities, will have enough resources to adequately weather this storm. Research shows that open-access colleges spend much less on students when including state appropriations, tuition and fees, and other sources of funding.

‘Uncharted Territory’

Some leaders and experts see similarities between what higher education is facing now and past crises, like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the previous coronavirus outbreak that caused SARS.

But there a few key differences this time around -- recommendations for social distancing and isolation are forcing colleges to pivot online at a rapid pace. The pandemic isn't locally contained. It's not as predictable as some natural disasters are. There are no known treatments or vaccines, like there were for the swine flu. Some people aren't showing symptoms, making it hard to know the extent to which coronavirus has spread.

And, perhaps most importantly, no one knows for sure when this crisis will end.

"This is new and uncharted territory," said Constance Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District.

As institutions are switching to online formats to avoid large gatherings, a divide between those with resources and those without is already apparent, Carroll said. Not all students have computers or internet access, for example, and some rely on resources provided on campuses.

"Our challenge right now is to try to help our students with that problem," she said.

Colleges also are frustrated because the situation is changing day to day, said Joe May, chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District. And the crisis is moving even faster than natural disasters and other events.

Natural disasters also tend to create jobs, May said, whereas the pandemic is eliminating work-study jobs and putting students' eligibility for federal funding at risk.

"What is getting missed a little bit in this is the equity implications," May said. "One of the reasons why I believe community colleges were more contemplative about closing was we know our students weren't going home to their own bedroom."

The students community colleges and other open-access institutions tend to serve -- nontraditional, low-income and underrepresented students -- might not be going home to broadband. They rely on public transportation, computer labs and food pantries, May said.

"We're weighing that very heavily."

Many are worried that a fully online format also will leave first-generation and underprepared students behind academically, said Cam Preus, executive director of the Oregon Community College Association.

"We have had a conference call with all 17 colleges every day," she said. "We've never done a call every day."

The recession itself will be different, as well.

"The circumstances are unique because it's being created not by a change in business attitudes about the economy, but rather around external policy changes for interventions to an epidemic," said Beth Akers, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "Whether or not we can bounce back from that is the question."

Countercyclical Effect in Question

One thing that keeps some hopeful is the typical countercyclical effects of recessions on higher education.

Generally, the opportunity cost of going to college, or returning to college, is less when the economy is doing poorly and jobs aren't as readily available.

John Sygielski, president and CEO of HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College in Harrisburg, believes this is a chance for higher education to re-examine how it delivers education and how it serves students and today's business needs.

Community colleges are in a good position, he said, because they tend to be "more agile and nimble to be able to address the training and education needs."

The sudden pivot to online could expedite what was going to happen anyway to higher education, Sygielski added.

"Newer generations are expecting technology," he said. "This, with a recession, is going to give us the opportunity to really look at the things we've been talking about, but we're going to have to put it into practice."

Those who do best in adapting will likely do best with their enrollments during the recession, he added. Sygielski believes more students will come to community colleges if remote is the only option because of tuition costs, and also because students tend to want to go to colleges close to home, even if programs are offered remotely.

May believes it's up to each institution to do the work to retain current students and attract new ones, as well as consider what their most vulnerable students are going through right now.

The Dallas district plans to be aggressive about reaching out and offering services and support to ensure students stay enrolled over the summer, he said.

But he's not sure whether they'll see an increase or decrease in enrollment.

"I remain optimistic. I think community colleges have a resiliency about them," May said. "We're in the best position to adapt."

Some experts agree that enrollment likely will follow past trends. Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, predicts that enrollment is likely to increase soon after threats from the virus pass.

At this point, students won't be warier about enrolling or continuing their education, he said, and the recession will increase the importance of a college degree.

Others are not so optimistic.

"I'm not as certain that this time it will be the same," Preus said. "If I look over my shoulder into the rearview mirror, it has happened many times. Perhaps that's my hope."

Still, Preus added that community colleges offer the best hope for workers who have no or some college credits to return to get skills to re-enter the workforce.

Students and families also have an increasing wariness of college, Akers said. That, coupled with a concern about dealing with future closures due to a possible resurgence of the coronavirus, could lead to a steeper overall drop in enrollment, she said. U.S. enrollment has already been down for the past eight years, especially at community colleges and for-profit colleges.

This could hurt open-access institutions in particular. Elite institutions can simply admit more students, as the desire to attend prestigious colleges is unlikely to wane, Akers said.

Akers believes those who succeed at expanding online programs are more likely to be successful over the next year. Online programs also can expand access for colleges to serve more students, adding revenue, she said.

Some believe this push, driven by the coronavirus, could accelerate the move to online.

This could lead public, open-access institutions to look more like for-profits, which tend to give students more flexible options, said Marshall Steinbaum, assistant professor of economics at the University of Utah.

"I think there will be a severe reduction in the quality of instruction because of this," he said. "It might create a different norm of what's expected in higher education."

Students likely will get angrier at higher education because of this, Steinbaum said, adding that the crisis likely will exacerbate existing trends and inequalities among institutions.

Fewer Institutions?

State funding is a key issue in recessions.

Many states have not resumed funding higher education at the same rates they did before the Great Recession hit in 2008, and the open-access sector is likely to take another hit this time around as states focus on the health industry, Carroll said.

But several colleges and states now have sizable "rainy day funds" to help them through this situation.

"It really is going to depend on the individual school's balance sheets," Sygielski said. "Those with strong balance sheets will probably be able to withstand a time with no increase in revenue if federal and state governments don't help."

HACC is going to be OK, he said, because it has sound reserves. Community colleges also often operate on thin margins, so they're more resourceful when times get tough, Sygielski added. He's also hopeful that philanthropists will realize that community colleges are where they should be investing to help keep the economic engines of states and communities afloat.

Smaller institutions with smaller savings are likely to merge or close, he predicts.

"In the end, I think we're going to see a major shift in higher education where we're going to see less institutions as time goes on," he said.

May also thinks higher education will look different once it's on the other side of this crisis.

"This one is going to really test our resiliency in ways that we haven't seen before," he said.

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