COVID-19 On Campus: Colleges Face Financial Strain As Cases Rise Scott Carlson, a writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, says COVID-19 has strained the finances of some colleges: "Over the next year or two, we will start to see these colleges fall away."

As Campuses Become COVID-19 Hot Spots, Colleges Strain Under Financial Pressures

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. As the fall semester begins at colleges and universities, students and administrators are facing unprecedented challenges. We asked FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger to explore the dilemma with the following interview. Here's Sam.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: As students returned to colleges and universities over the last few weeks, campuses have become the new hot spots for coronavirus outbreaks. The New York Times is reporting that there are over 88,000 cases of coronavirus on college and university campuses across the country. While some schools decided to offer all their courses online, many had ambitious plans to open in person with various levels of protocols in place to protect students and staff. These included testing practices in dorm rooms set aside for quarantine. But as cases rose among their students, schools like UNC Chapel Hill have had to reverse course and go completely online. Other schools, like Iowa State University, remain open despite having over 1,000 cases of coronavirus.

Student parties are being blamed by campus administrators for the spread of the disease, but should these schools have opened in the first place? We wanted to talk to someone about what's going on at colleges and universities across the country. Our guest Scott Carlson is a senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education. He's been covering how schools have approached teaching during the pandemic and also about the financial health of colleges and universities. I spoke to him on Monday from his home in Baltimore.

Well, Scott Carlson, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SCOTT CARLSON: Thanks for having me on.

BRIGER: So, you know, as I just said, The New York Times is reporting that there are over 88,000 cases of virus across colleges and universities. You spent last spring and summer reporting on, like, how schools were planning to open. Do those numbers surprise you? Did you anticipate there'd be that many cases?

CARLSON: I think a lot of people thought that there would be an explosion of cases on campus. So, you know, the colleges were debating internally whether to come back after the spring semester. And you had administration and boards of governors really pushing for reopening plans in a number of cases - UNC being one in particular, Georgia being another one. And then, internally, you had a number of faculty members and students and others who were saying, really, there's no way for colleges to keep students from sort of gathering in the kinds of social situations - off campus, on campus - that would lead to a coronavirus spread.

So this isn't really surprising to a lot of people, that there would be these kinds of, you know, acceleration of cases around coronavirus. Given that, these colleges are under a lot of financial pressure right now, so the pressure to open, the movement to open, was really driven by financial decisions in a lot of cases and, you know, pressure politically and pressure, too, from parents and students, students in particular, who really wanted to have a fall semester of some kind in some cases. But most of the students that I talked to - for example, at UNC - they all knew that the colleges couldn't keep this under control. They just wanted to turn up for a few weeks to see if they could have something of a fall semester experience.

BRIGER: Well, we'll get to some of those pressures in a second. But before that, can you give us a sense of how many schools across the country decided to go online this semester and how many planned to have at least some amount of in-person learning?

CARLSON: Yeah, so it's interesting. The colleges that have chosen to go in person, primarily or fully, amounts to about 20%. That's an interesting number to me because if you looked at this earlier in the summer, the number of colleges that were saying, we're going to have an in-person semester, was well over half. You have to wonder if that was just projecting confidence about what the fall would be since so much money was tied up in having an in-person semester. So right now it's 20% of colleges having some kind of in-person courses. It's 16% doing kind of a hybrid course, which is part online, part in person. A quarter of them are doing education primarily online. Six percent are doing it fully online. And some quarter are still trying to figure out what they're going to do.

BRIGER: Do you know if there are any schools that have had big outbreaks but are still trying to keep a semblance of normalcy?

CARLSON: I - you look at University of Illinois, for example. So University of Illinois has adopted this testing system that's really one of the most celebrated in the country because it's really vast. They're testing the students twice a week on that campus. In fact, one of the first weeks that they came back to school in the fall, they had done on the University of Illinois campus something like 2% to 3% of the tests that were done across the country on that campus.


CARLSON: So it's a tremendous number. They also have that hooked up to an app that connects to the test results and then acts like a kind of boarding pass that allows students to get in and out of dorms. And if the test comes back negative, the student gets a kind of screenshot or sort of a screen display that says, hey, you're all clear. That screen display saying all clear allows that student to get into all of the dorm buildings on campus, all of the academic buildings on campus and other buildings on campus.

But it's also being adopted by some of the businesses that are in the Urbana-Champaign area. So you can't get into this restaurant, you can't get into this bar unless you flash your pass - your COVID pass, so to speak. The issue is - are people going to stick to the rules? You know, you've read about situations where the students are hacking these notification apps...

BRIGER: Oh, really?

CARLSON: ...And getting them to show that it's a clear test when it actually isn't.


CARLSON: And there they had a spread of the virus because students were not distancing. Maybe this is a result of the widespread testing. Maybe students thought, hey, you know, with all this testing on campus, we can do what we want. But it did end up spreading the virus, so they did lock things down for a while, and they're trying to maintain the school year as it is, thinking that with the kind of testing that they have on campus, they'll be able to control this in the future if they're able to reprimand the students who have been not engaging in social distancing or going to parties and so on.

BRIGER: You visited Ames, Iowa, which is the home of Iowa State University, a school that's had one of the larger outbreaks on its campus. Tell us what you saw there.

CARLSON: So I went around the town, for the most part, and talked to people there. What you see first is that no one is wearing a mask. Right off campus, you walk into the bars, you walk into the restaurants, everyone is unmasked and sitting in small rooms together. Sure, they're separated. They're supposed to be separated at the tables. They're supposed to be separated at the bars. But, you know, this is really sort of enclosed environment where, you know, coronavirus can move through the air and infect everyone in the place if someone has the infection. So that was one thing that I saw.

The other thing was that I went around to some of the businesses downtown and talked to the business owners, and, you know, they're seeing declines of 20% to 30% in their businesses, sometimes 50%. You talk to landlords and they're saying, we can't - we have unfilled beds here in town. We can't fill them because people aren't coming. So it ends up being a really difficult situation for the locals, people who, you know, may not be aligned with the kinds of attitudes that are on the campus, politically, but they still rely on the economic muscle that the college or university can bring.

BRIGER: So in some ways, that must create an interesting discourse between people who have different political beliefs.

CARLSON: Absolutely. I mean, in a place like Ames, you know, you had people who absolutely didn't believe that the coronavirus was real, and yet they still wanted the students to come back, and they were still nervous about how the students would spread that virus through their community.

BRIGER: Essentially, they didn't believe if it was real and yet they were worried about it spreading.

CARLSON: Yeah. I mean, they raised skepticism about whether it was real or not. So - but they did - I mean, it's kind of one of these situations where I think the population is a bit schizophrenic about this. I mean, they're not sure whether it's real. They're not seeing direction from the federal government, and they're not seeing direction from public figures. And so - and yet at the same time, the numbers are climbing. It's clear that people are getting sick.

BRIGER: Is size an issue here? I mean, like, some of these universities are, like, small cities unto themselves with tens of thousands of students. You've got faculty administration staff, maintenance, people working in food service. Are smaller schools just in a better position to handle the pandemic because of numbers?

CARLSON: If you look at the coronavirus tracker that The New York Times has put up for colleges, you can see that it's the big state institutions that have really seen a spike in numbers, and I think that has to do with the anonymity of living on a big state university. You know, it's a - tens of thousands of people. And, you know, the notion that you can sort of escape into the crowd and not have a kind of responsibility toward the rest of the student population is a little more possible when you're more anonymous on those campuses.

In the case of smaller colleges, what you notice from that tracker is they really haven't seen the spike in cases that these larger state universities have, and I think that has to do something with the kind of community that's in these smaller schools. Also, these smaller schools tend to be rurally situated, so they're outside the cities and outside of contact points where the students might be able to pick up COVID more easily.

BRIGER: So you're saying that in larger universities, students can adopt, like, airport behavior and just not really think about their co-students as much? Is that the problem?

CARLSON: Well, I mean, what you're finding in cases like the University of Illinois is that they have a vast testing program set up, but it only takes a handful of students to really ruin that. If you get a small group of students that hold a party or go to a frat party or socialize in an irresponsible way, those students end up spreading it across the campus or leading to a rise in numbers, a significant rise in numbers.

What you find at small colleges is it's a little bit more of a community feel. There's more contact between students, administrators and professors. And that kind of smaller community, that sort of smaller environment, tends to lead to more self-policing. I will say this, that even on these big state university campuses, a lot of the students I talked to at, say, UNC were really disappointed in the students that were ruining the fall semester for them. So it's not like every student is out there being irresponsible. This is a handful of students who are, you know, not engaging in the kind of social distancing that they should.

BRIGER: Why don't we take a short break here? I'm speaking with Scott Carlson, senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, about how colleges and universities are being impacted by the coronavirus. We'll be back shortly. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'M Sam Briger, sitting in for Terry Gross. If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Scott Carlson, senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, about how colleges and universities have addressed the spread of coronavirus on their campuses.

So what are some of the financial considerations schools had to weigh in making the decision to either go online or have some in-person education?

CARLSON: Well, there were several. So one is residents and the auxiliary income that comes for colleges and universities. One small private college president in Ohio told me, we make money on the dorms, we about break even on dining, and we lose money on everything else, including the education and tuition, right? So for a number of these colleges, having students living there, paying for the dorms, is a big financial boost for those colleges. Add to that athletics. There are a number of schools that have prominent athletic programs. Very few schools actually make money off of the athletics, but even when they don't make money off of the athletics, the athletics ends up being something that attracts students both to go to school there to play athletics but also to watch the athletics. So if sports is not going on, that ends up being a hit.

I think of a place like Monmouth College, for example, in Illinois. They told me that 50% of the students there are athletes, D3 athletes. So going there and playing their sport is a huge incentive for the students to enroll at Monmouth. And then, finally, there's the tuition considerations, paying for the classes themselves. So many of these colleges are highly, highly tuition dependent. And if students aren't there, even if they have a loss of a small number of students, that ends up being a huge hit for the college, financially. So we're going to see big budget cuts coming up because of that.

BRIGER: So schools that have decided to go online this year are going to be losing money.

CARLSON: Not necessarily. I mean, there have been situations where colleges are going online, they're charging sort of a similar amount that they would charge for an in-person course. So on the tuition, they might be making money; they just might not be making money on that room and board, and that'll end up being a hit.

BRIGER: This might be a cynical question, but do you think that some of these schools may have opened at first really knowing that they were going to shut down and go online but acted as if they were going to have a really robust in-person teaching experience because they wanted students to come and they wanted them to pay their tuition?

CARLSON: Well, that is the cynical perspective, I guess, you know?


CARLSON: I mean, I can't assign motives to these administrators. I think everybody involved really wanted to try to make this work. I mean, again, these colleges are under intense financial pressure given the trends in higher education. I mean, there were a lot of other factors that they had to put in place and a lot of money spent on bringing the students there. I mean, you have to think about all the contracts that they set up with food service, with dorms, with landscaping and so on. It just seems like it would be a short-sighted decision even if it were operated only cynically.

BRIGER: Let's talk a little bit about how colleges and universities are handling testing and quarantining people on their campuses who have the virus. You know, I've read about some schools that were planning to test their students, like, twice a week. And, you know, tests can cost around $100 a pop. That's going to get expensive really quickly.

CARLSON: Yes, at Cal State in particular. You know, Cal State has said that they're going to do an online semester in the spring. They're doing their online semester this semester - now. And I think Tim White, who's the chancellor of Cal State, said that testing would cost the university, the university system overall, something like $25 million a week.

BRIGER: Wow, a week.

CARLSON: I mean, it's just not possible to do. Yeah. Some of these tests run anywhere from a hundred to $150 a piece. That's very expensive. Now, the University of Illinois has developed this rapid saliva test, which is - has become pretty cheap. It's cost about 10 to $15 for them to do it. And it's fast. And it's connected to this app. So that, I think, will start to move the ball a little bit. As some of these faster and cheaper testing programs come online, more colleges will be able to pull them off. But still, that's pretty expensive to do two tests a week at 10 to 15 bucks a pop.

BRIGER: It seems like one of the really big challenges that schools face is, you know, what to do with students who test positive. Like, are they put into quarantine? Is their dorm room quarantined? Is their whole dormitory quarantined? What approaches have you seen?

CARLSON: Mostly, what I've seen is colleges sort of setting up dorms that are separate from the rest of the dorms and putting the students in there, delivering meals to them and sort of keeping them isolated. Now, in some cases, I've read that that's been demoralizing for these students, to sit in these dorms all alone. And they've really sort of been ignored to some extent by the colleges. Again, in other cases, you know, the colleges have relied on the students to self-quarantine, to stay isolated and keep away from other students. That's with - that comes with mixed success, of course.

BRIGER: Has the pandemic strained the relationship between towns and universities?

CARLSON: Those relationships are often strained anyway. But it's this symbiotic relationship between a town and a college. You know, what's interesting is that a lot of these small institutions are located in these tiny towns in rural areas. And that is sort of an accident of history. And where that comes from is that when these small colleges were established, they were established, usually, in connection to some sort of religious order or church. And they were largely established for the education of men.

And so the idea at that time was to say, hey, we want the men out of the cities where there's lots of temptation. Bring them to the rural areas. And we'll educate them here both morally and intellectually in terms of traditional studies. The thing is now is that you have these small colleges dotted across the country in these little communities. And given the kind of evaporation of wealth around agriculture - agriculture has been consolidated and mechanized and started going away in the 20th century in a lot of these small towns and then, after that, manufacturing. Manufacturing was automated or it was sent overseas.

And so these small colleges end up being sort of the last economic pillars in these small towns. So many people who live in these small towns realize that the college is a vital driver of businesses and activity there. And at the same time, you know, traditionally, students have been troublemakers. There's tension between the college and the administration of the college and the power of that college. And then there tends to be tension between the college and the local community in terms of the decision-making there mainly because the university or college tends to wield a lot of power and tends to push the city around.

So there's already that tension. Then you bring in these students who bring coronavirus with them. What I heard in places like Ames, Iowa, was that the local residents weren't eager to see the students back. The local residents, even when they were skeptical that the coronavirus was a thing, they still worried that the students would bring a lot of infection and disease with them. But at the same time, some of those same people told me, look; we need to have them back because our restaurants are dying. Our retail is dying. Some people were landlords. They rented to students. And they needed the money to come back.

BRIGER: We need to take another break here. We're talking about how colleges and universities are being affected by the coronavirus with Scott Carlson, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, sitting in for Terry Gross. Across the country, many colleges and universities have had outbreaks of coronavirus, causing some schools that recently opened to shut down all in-person teaching and go completely online. We're talking about what is happening on campuses and whether schools will be financially impacted by the virus with senior writer from The Chronicle of Higher Education Scott Carlson.

So Scott, you write a lot about the financial challenges facing colleges and universities. Before we get to how the pandemic is stressing campuses financially, what were some of the pressures affecting schools before coronavirus?

CARLSON: So the financial pressures that were affecting colleges and universities in the current time mainly had to do with the demographic declines that are happening among college students 18 to 22 years old across the country. So what's happening there is that after the recession, fewer children were born. And so what we're seeing right now is a decline in the number of students that will hit its low point sometime in the mid-2020s.

And this has already exerted a huge amount of pressure on colleges, particularly small private colleges. If you look at a place like Vermont, they've had a number of college closures there over the past year or two, and that's happened in part because Vermont is one of the states that is seeing the most impact from these demographic declines. So that's huge. I mean, you had places there like Southern Vermont College and Green Mountain College, which was a college that had a great niche in this country, being one of the most sustainable green colleges in the country. Even a place like that that had a name is going out of business.

So for the public colleges, it's also been a pressure. I mean, I've talked about places - systems like the PASSHE system in Pennsylvania, which is facing restructuring. And there's other places - North Dakota; public colleges in Minnesota, for example, have been pressured. A lot of this has to do with these demographic declines.

On top of that, after the recession - after the 2008 recession, families were, of course, hit financially. And what we've had over the past 10 years or so is really limitations on the amount of money that families can devote to a college education. And that's been tough on colleges that have a high sticker price. Even if the actual price those students are paying is a bit lower, if they have a high sticker price, it's just been something that has dissuaded families from wanting to enroll there.

Colleges also have a lot of issues around cost. They haven't been good at tracking their costs or really knowing what their programs cost. For example, a lot of colleges don't know what it costs them to graduate a nursing major versus an English major versus a business major. And that's in part because the college business model is so complicated.

BRIGER: Well, you've also said that they're just not very good at knowing where their money comes from. Right?

CARLSON: Yeah. And that's in part because the college business model is really complicated. I mean, think about it. If you think about a company that produces widgets, that company knows, for example, how much the raw materials are in producing that widget. They know what the equipment costs to produce that widget. They know how much labor is - goes into that. And then they know what it sells for out on the market.

The widget for colleges and universities is a person with a degree. And that person with a degree has - can have a unique route through that college. They can stop out for a while. They can draw on different kinds of sources of income. So it's just a really complicated kind of business environment on top of the fact that colleges - I mean, they really do a lot. I mean, you think about a college. It's not just a place that educates through the classroom. I mean, they have sports facilities. They have a huge physical plant. They run their own infrastructure there. They might have their own police force.

I mean, it's just - it's gigantic, especially the big institutions. So administrators don't necessarily have a handle on that, the cost of those things, especially because a lot of administrators really come out of academe. They weren't trained in the business world necessarily. I mean, you think about a professor who is a history professor, rises up to the ranks, becomes dean, becomes vice president and then eventually becomes provost or president at a college somewhere. There's nowhere in the training of that person that teaches them about, you know, business processes and, really, the financial model of higher education.

BRIGER: I think you've also said that those people might be philosophically averse to prioritizing parts of their college that is making money and then dismissing other parts that are there because they believe they're important academically.

CARLSON: Well - I mean, there is a suspicion of a business mindset in higher education. And maybe that's right. I mean, there have been a number of colleges that are acting more and more like a giant corporation. And to the mind of some academics, that really is counter to what a university is really supposed to be all about, which is the mission of education. And I think generally in academe, which is a more liberal environment, they're suspicious of the kinds of corporatization that might happen at the management level at these colleges and universities.

At the same time, these colleges are going to be under tremendous financial pressure. I mean, $300 million dollars in cuts at the University of Maryland coming, 25% to 50% cuts at some other institutions. I mean, that's huge. And so - you know, the pressure that these institutions are going to be under, the pressure that they are going to have to act in a way that is financially responsible is going to be there. It's going to be a culture clash on a lot of campuses.

BRIGER: So the - so has the pandemic only amplified these problems that existed before, or has it overlaid, like, a whole nother set of challenges on the ones that already existed?

CARLSON: Well, it's definitely overlaid its own set of challenges. I mean - you know, traditionally, colleges have been these places that have offered a cornucopia of educational opportunities. Back when times were good, you know, they were really good at starting programs and not so great at shutting them down if they weren't successful. You know, they would just sort of let them linger for a while. That's not going to be possible anymore. And so if you think about, you know, sort of the situations or the kind of, you know, diminishment of programs that's probably coming in the future here, it's going to be really hard for a lot of these institutions.

I think people were really expecting colleges to sort of hit the wall in July, and it didn't happen. It didn't happen in August. It's takes a long time to kill a college. That's one of the sayings in this industry. But I think that over the next year or two, we will start to see these colleges fall away. They just won't be able to - they won't be able to deal with the kinds of financial pressures that they've had on top of the financial pressures that they've already had. And of course, that's going to lead to a lot of damage in the Northeast, in the Midwest and in parts of the South for sure.

BRIGER: So are there certain kinds of schools that are - you think are more susceptible to collapse?

CARLSON: You would look at a type. So, you know, if you talk to, say, Moody's or some of the other analysts of the industry, they would say look for colleges that are - that have small endowments, that are rurally situated, that don't have names, that don't have distinctive programs. I mean, all of those things are really important to establishing sort of a position in this industry.

BRIGER: So the prestige schools are probably OK. But some of the smaller or lesser known schools, it's possible that they're going to go under. Will that create a disparity in who actually gets to go to college?

CARLSON: Yes, it will create a disparity in who gets to go to college because a lot of those smaller institutions, even if they seem expensive or even if they're not really - not all that selective, they do have a really great history of attracting students, bringing them in, giving them a degree, particularly students from first-generation or low-income backgrounds. And they do - private - small, private colleges tend to do a better job of that than some public institutions and even some community colleges. So yeah, there will be a disparity there in educational achievement that will come out of this.

You know, the elite colleges, they're always going to be OK not only because they have the endowment, but because they're able to pull students up. When they're lacking in demand, they can always pull students up from colleges that are at lower tiers. So they can meet the demand for themselves because they just have that prestige. You know, what I worry about is the loss of biodiversity. A number of these smaller institutions can be really special places that are, in a way, experimental.

You know, I think about a place like the College of the Atlantic. And I don't know how the College of the Atlantic is doing in the COVID crisis. But, you know, this is a small college in Bar Harbor, Maine, where there's only one major, it's human ecology, which can mean anything you want it to mean. It's built around the idea of environmentalism at that college. It really ends up being an interesting educational experience because the college has less resources than other schools.

They really rely on the students to go out and seek their own grants, to do their own work, to find their own equipment, to pull off these sort of very hands-on kinds of college lessons. You know, that place was founded in the late 1960s, early 1970s around really innovative ideas in higher education. And these small institutions are the kinds of places that can make those kinds of shifts. You know, you think about a place like Goddard College in Vermont, another college that has had financial trouble in recent years.

Goddard College was the place that started the low residency program. That is the kind of program where you turn up at the college for maybe a week or two. And then you go and do the rest of it in distance form. And they started that in the 1940s. And it's turned out to be a really interesting way, a really different way, something you don't see a lot in higher education, for offering education to people at a distance, but that is still very much connected to local community and connected to a cohort.

These small schools are able to shift in ways that, you know, larger institutions have trouble shifting. And they are the innovative edge of higher education. If we end up losing them simply because they don't have the economies of scale to be able to offer cheaper education or they're just remote and students don't feel like they want to go there or they don't feel like they have the resources or the entertainment there that they would have if they went to an urban institution, I think that would be really tragic if we lost these places.

BRIGER: Well, Scott Carlson, thanks so much for being on FRESH AIR.

CARLSON: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Scott Carlson is senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new Netflix drama series "Ratched" by Ryan Murphy. It's about a younger version of the character Nurse Ratched from the film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." This is FRESH AIR.


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