Can Colleges Survive Coronavirus If They Stay Closed In The Fall? Colleges around the U.S. moved classes online during the pandemic. Some are considering keeping their campuses shut in the fall — which means hiring freezes, smaller admissions and even layoffs.

Can Colleges Survive Coronavirus? 'The Math Is Not Pretty'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The news coming out of America's colleges and universities has been dire. Some schools have announced hiring freezes. Others have laid off staff and contractors. And if colleges can't reopen in the fall, the situation will only get worse. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Most campuses in the U.S. are sitting empty. Courses are online, students are at home, and administrators are trying to figure out how to make the finances of that work.

ROBERT KELCHEN: The math is not pretty.

NADWORNY: Robert Kelchen studies higher ed finances at Seton Hall University.

KELCHEN: Colleges are stressed both on the revenue side and on the expenditure side.

NADWORNY: Let's take a look at that math. Money is going out. Colleges are spending to get classes online. That's software and training professors. Plus, many have issued refunds to students for room and board and parts of tuition. And money isn't coming in. Think revenues from events like athletics and conferences. Colleges that are lucky enough to have an endowment, those have taken a major hit, too.

DOMINIQUE BAKER: This will touch every sector of higher education, every size of institution, every region of the country.

NADWORNY: Dominique Baker is a professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. While the financial pain will be felt by everyone, she says, some institutions will have the financial resources to weather this and some won't.

BAKER: For some colleges, this is an existential threat. That means that this institution will have to close.

NADWORNY: What keeps Baker up at night - the students who rely on institutions for services like health care, campus jobs, free food. She says she anticipates schools that service more vulnerable students - those in rural areas, low-income students - to feel the squeeze even more. One place schools could turn - the federal government. But the last relief package from Congress offered up $14 billion. Robert Kelchen says for this financial situation, it wasn't enough.

KELCHEN: Colleges are going to want a lot more money from Congress.

NADWORNY: The current ask from higher ed lobbyists - 46 billion more. And that's a conservative ask, they say. The other major funding stream is states, but revenues are way down there from an economy on hold. In most states, higher ed is one of the few parts of the state budget that isn't constitutionally required.

KELCHEN: So when the budget takes a hit, higher ed really takes a hit.

NADWORNY: And remember; state funding for colleges was already down, never fully recovered after the last recession in 2008. Because of that, many colleges have been reliant on tuition, but that's not looking good, either. Enrollment's been down for the last eight years. International students, who often pay full tuition, helped. But now, with travel restrictions in play, schools are expecting very few of them this fall. And this is the situation before most institutions have officially answered the biggest question. Will the fall semester actually happen?

JOEY KING: I think we're still 50/50 on whether the fall semester looks normal.

NADWORNY: Joey King is the president of Lyon College, a small private school in Arkansas. There, he says, his administration is currently planning both options - the typical residential experience they've always had or a totally virtual run - two very different options. But King says there's really no scenario where it doesn't hurt financially.

KING: We just don't know exactly how much, and we don't know for how many years.

NADWORNY: It's not like they were running a surplus before this, either, he says. They have long struggled with a small endowment and enrollment. But he says this spring it was actually shaping up to be pretty good. The number of students who have committed and send in their deposits is higher than expected.

KING: But the question is, did those deposits - do the intentions that we've heard so far ring true to a final decision? You know, do you actually show up in the fall?

NADWORNY: That's the question every college in America is wondering right now.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.


Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.