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It is now probable that a national all-clear signal for the coronavirus pandemic won’t be possible until a vaccine is developed and administered broadly. That is very unlikely to occur before the opening of the fall semester on American campuses. The more hopeful and probable scenario is that new infections will level off and treatments will improve. Nevertheless, by September, a reservoir of millions of yet-uninfected Americans will probably remain, and some forms of social distancing will still be necessary.

What does that mean for higher education -- a sector of our economy composed of billions of dollars of public and private investments in campuses that are currently deserts, without students, faculty or staff? Most institutions are battling heroically to communicate online and to manage a very uncertain financial future. It will be surprising if donations will hold up in the face of an overall economic depression and erosion of personal portfolios and institutional endowments. The competition with other nonprofits for charitable giving will be fierce. Yet perhaps even more threatening will be the conversations in millions of households focused on whether students should return to campuses in the fall.

The conventional wisdom has been that enrollments increased during economic recessions, but that wisdom doesn’t factor in a wholly different medical environment. Now, many students may elect to stay home because they are afraid or because the pleasures of residential life have disappeared. They will seek to eke out their educational futures with various online providers. How they will discern what kind of educational focus will be productive in the new post-COVID economy, which is at this stage unknowable?

Few campuses should expect a return to normalcy next year, so what further adjustments will need to be made? Residential campuses will face a different set of problems than commuter schools, though many institutions are combinations. If there are considerably fewer students taking in-person courses on many campuses, what should trustees and administrators do?

In the short term, it is hard to see an alternative use for the largest buildings on many campuses, the cavernous football stadiums or basketball and hockey arenas. In an era of continued social distancing, sitting side by side with thousands of fans you do not know, or exchanging hugs with people you do know at tailgates or postgame parties, seem to be unattractive activities now. Even playing games without spectators, marching bands or cheerleaders runs risks for players and coaches, who must practice, perform and travel together. Will institutions be able to honor scholarships for athletes who cannot be on campus together?

In a national survey of 130 athletics directors, more than half foresaw revenue decreases of more than 20 percent. Even that is probably whistling in the dark. A recent Seton Hall University survey showed that 72 percent of the respondents said they would not attend resumed sporting events until a virus vaccine was available. Existing athletic conferences will have to be redesigned to eliminate travel costs; Seton Hall’s Big East Conference, for example, includes institutions in Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Without paying spectators, may universities will have to drop intercollegiate sports altogether or convert them to club teams or even intramurals.

In contrast, arts, music and other cultural activities may survive without in-person audiences, if they can practice and perform without close proximity. Already some musical groups have given concerts thorough Zoom. It will be difficult, but colleges and universities should make cultural events accessible to off-campus audiences, perhaps with nominal prices. If a campus has a functioning radio or television station, it might extend access and programing to community groups. Similarly, campus libraries might create new agreements with other local libraries, so their resources might be shared electronically and patrons need not travel.

If inexpensive and quick infection tests become available, it is possible to imagine that administering them daily to small groups of students at the classroom doors would be feasible. For large lecture hall classes, that probably would not work. So with fewer residential students and excess classrooms, campuses will need to find new uses for these spaces. In the short run, some campuses may follow Stanford University’s example of clearing student rooms for medical personnel and persons awaiting COVID-19 test results.

With millions of workers now unemployed, campuses will also need to think through how they can engage in on-site or online training for the new skills the changed economy will require. Some departments and faculty will be able to adopt that new very vocational mission better than others. For remaining residential students, new internships and other programs will need to be designed so that these privileged citizens can help other citizens with great needs. Students may be able to help with contact tracing, supporting health-care workers and, if safe, providing activities in nursing homes.

On residential campuses, lower enrollment will mean some empty dormitories. Simply turning off the heat, utilities and water is not civically acceptable. In an environment where many families will no longer be able to pay mortgages or afford rents, it would be irresponsible to let campus housing stay empty. Governments could create Section 8-like housing vouchers for families that would benefit from living on a campus. Rules would have to be worked out to assure nondiscrimination, family priorities and what campus facilities would be accessible to these nonstudents. Campuses should be free to negotiate some conditions in return for these vouchers within the basic legal framework.

Higher education is not as desperate as the cruise line, air transportation or hotel industries, but serious adjustments will need to be made. And some small colleges with low endowments and limited status sadly may fail, perhaps converted into senior retirement villages or corporate locations.

In the recently passed stimulus package, about $14 billion was allocated to higher education based on a formula of campus enrollment of 75 percent Pell Grant students and 25 percent non-Pell Grant students. Support for propping up largely empty campuses, however, will dissipate over time, given the enormous number of immediate needs governments must address. It will not be enough to point to the long-term benefits of higher education given the nation’s immediate health and economic crisis. Higher education will make new friends and long-term supporters if it shows it can be responsive to the crisis in a nonpartisan pragmatic repurposing of some of its facilities.

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