Coronavirus on campus: Strategic and financial considerations for the short and long term

As the coronavirus outbreak intensifies, higher education institutions are making difficult decisions about closing campuses and moving courses online. Institutions need to think not only about the current term, but also about potential impacts on strategy and finances into the summer and fall terms.

Current term

If your institution suspends in-person classes, there are two immediate concerns to address: coursework and operations.

Moving courses online. The biggest challenge is getting everyone onto an online format quickly. Faculty and administrators should be encouraged to:

Offer guidance for online options. Many faculty do not have online teaching experience. Institutions should make resources available to provide guidance on developing online units and interacting with students in a digital environment.
Align with the institution’s technology stack. If faculty use a workaround that does not align with the institution’s technology stack, the online curriculum they prepare may have limited future utility.
Create learning modules that could be adapted to future use. Faculty should consider online education not only as a short-term fix, but also as a potential long-term approach. Course evaluations can provide further data on online success, with the caveats of hasty implementation and faculty training.
Consider other course requirements. Courses and programs may need to meet certain additional accreditation requirements for online delivery. Although short-term waivers for these requirements are being granted, the normal accreditation guidelines for online programming should be followed as much as possible now, to optimize future use of the curriculum developed.

Operations. An immediate challenge is accommodating students who cannot leave campus and staff who still need to work from campus. The institution will need to maintain a certain level of services (including residence halls, food service, IT, security, and custodial) for these individuals.

Other considerations include the following:
Admissions. The coronavirus outbreak has come at the same time that next year’s admitted students are making decisions on where they will attend. Institutions should consider options such as virtual tours of campus.
Refund requests. If campus is closed, administrators should anticipate inquiries from parents who request refunds for housing, meal plans, athletic fees, and other services that the institution is no longer providing.

Summer term

Registration for summer programs may be underway already. Institutions should start planning what to do if the coronavirus continues to spread as summer approaches.

When will the institution decide whether it will offer in-person summer courses? The coronavirus outbreak did not begin until well into the current term at most institutions, making it impossible to plan in advance. With a better understanding of the situation, institutions should set a deadline for deciding whether in-person courses will be offered for the summer term.
What adjustments to course schedules and tuition may be required? Can courses scheduled for the summer term be adapted to an online environment or will they need to be cancelled? Institutions also should consider whether they will adjust tuition for online courses or offer rebates to registered students who prefer not to take a course online.
Will residence halls remain open? Even if in-person summer courses are cancelled, students may be relying on staying in residence halls if they have an internship or summer job on or near campus, or if they are international students unable to return home.

Fall term and beyond

Additional risks in the long term include the economic downturn, particularly its impact on financial aid, and the following international pressures.

Student enrollment. International students make up a significant percentage of enrolled students on many campuses. Students who are able to return home this year may decide not to return, and newly admitted students and their families may have second thoughts about committing to study in the U.S.
Study abroad programs. Students may be reluctant to commit to study abroad during the next academic year or may face cancellation of their program if coronavirus outbreaks continue. The financial impact may be significant if, for example, an institution maintains one or more international campuses that are funded in part by tuition revenues from study abroad programs.

Much remains uncertain. Institutions should start developing scenarios now to identify and quantify the financial and operational risks they face and the potential impact of these risks on strategic and capital spending plans. A clearer understanding of risks—and the options to mitigate them—will provide institutional decision makers with the information they need to best serve the interests of students, faculty, and staff.

[Editor’s note: This piece is adapted from a post originally published on Kaufman Hall’s Sustaining Higher Ed blog and is republished here with permission.]

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