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The COVID-19 pandemic has hastened an impending crisis, which could see colleges and universities face a decade’s worth of enrollment decline in just one year. The 10 percent decline in new students that Nathan Grawe projected would happen from 2018 to 2029 has transformed into an immediate and potentially disastrous problem as the current pandemic sends shock waves through the higher education system. Suddenly, the late Clayton Christensen’s prediction that as many as half of American colleges and universities would close or go bankrupt in the next decade seems at least plausible, but for reasons that even he could not have foreseen.

This decline will not only be disastrous for the institutions, their employees and the communities they serve, but also for a generation of students -- many of whom will be the first to feel the impacts of cuts to their institutions. Widening differences in access to electronic and in-person resources have the potential to deepen long-standing inequities faced by students of color, from rural areas or from poorer households. For students who decide to enroll in the semesters ahead, changes could reach well beyond instruction quality, affecting everything from library hours to meal availability. More broadly, mass setbacks could occur in job opportunities and equity.

The higher education sector now faces a crucial set of decisions that will shape its future for decades to come. After the enrollment surge associated with the 2008 financial crisis, the resulting economic recovery led to an 8 percent decline in enrollment and a closure rate of 9 percent among colleges and universities (according to an analysis of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System conducted by the Sorenson Impact Center), with many more instituting cost-saving measures. While the current pandemic has amplified the strain on an already vulnerable higher education sector, institutions have the opportunity to transform in intentional and student-centric ways.

For the past two years, we at the Sorenson Impact Center at the University of Utah have considered and prepared frameworks and strategies for institutions to engage in proactive, equitable, student-centric decision making in the face of declining enrollment. Using the latest tools in data science, we collected and cleaned hundreds of data sets to build a model of the potential impacts of enrollment trends on students, including how scenarios may play out across time and different geographies.

In addition to our own analyses, we brought together a cross-disciplinary group of experts from accrediting bodies, higher education administration, nonprofits and private industry to provide further insight. The MAPS (Model, Analyze, Prototype, Share) group, convened by the Sorenson Impact Center, shed new light on our previous modeling work, pointing to trends that require further analysis, from enrollment declines in HBCUs to the creation of new education deserts in rural parts of America.

The model has pointed to an alarming likelihood that negative impacts will be disproportionately felt by a generation of students who are already among the least supported: students of color, students from poorer households and students from rural areas. They will be overrepresented among potentially millions of students whose education will be compromised by rapid systemic decline in the postsecondary structure. Christensen and others worried about closures and bankruptcies. We became concerned about the flip side of that coin: students in institutions that never close but perhaps should because their ability to deliver a quality education is compromised.

Institutions and students in the South, Midwest and Northeast will be impacted the most due to institutional sensitivity catalyzed by decreased enrollment and shifting demographics. COVID-19 has the potential to intensify the already existing impact on the most vulnerable populations across the country, particularly in places that already have lower educational attainment. A survey of roughly 8,000 students and parents found that 24 percent are considering delaying enrollment and nearly 16 percent are considering transferring to another college or university, potentially closer to home.

Decreases in enrollment heighten institutional sensitivity as colleges face less financial security, with tuition revenue providing nearly half (46.4 percent) of all U.S. educational revenue for public colleges and universities in 2017. While this sensitivity does not necessarily mean an institution will suddenly close, it does mean that they should proactively prepare and adapt in ways that do not compromise student success. As more institutions downsize and continue to make difficult decisions about prioritization, institutions have the opportunity to address long-standing inequities and adapt in student-centric ways.

As institutions grapple with the challenges brought by COVID-19, regulators and policy makers must protect vulnerable students in sensitive institutions. We need better and more timely indications of financial changes so students and staff members can prepare. Poor student outcomes are often predictive of institutional distress, and regulators have historically paid little attention to this fact. As COVID-19 affects the finances of institutions, regulators must do more to protect students. Likewise, colleges and universities have a responsibility to be more transparent with their students and communities as they adapt to the changing system.

This crisis raises new questions as we grapple with an uncertain future, but colleges and universities have an opportunity to help create a new system of higher education that is more equitable and improves outcomes for all students. Creating this new system requires radically rethinking the structures and practices of colleges and universities and adapting them in a way that prepares institutions not only to survive but also succeed. By acting proactively, colleges and universities can respond to this pandemic and adapt in ways that balance institutional priorities with the needs of students they serve.

In future pieces, members of the MAPS working group will share their research and thoughts on how COVID-19 will impact our system of higher education and how institutions can and should change to best respond to the pandemic as well as thrive in the future.

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