Higher Education Responses to Coronavirus



By Andrew Smalley

The outbreak of the coronavirus has become a major disruption to colleges and universities across the country, with most institutions canceling in-person classes and moving to online-only instruction. The pandemic also threatens to significantly alter nearly every aspect of college life, from admissions and enrollment to collegiate athletics. These concerns extend to the financial future of higher education institutions in a time of considerable financial instability, both in the form of unexpected costs and potential reductions in revenue.

As the situation continues to develop, legislators are taking an active role in addressing both the immediate and long-term challenges related to the outbreak. As many colleges close on-campus housing and dining, legislators have introduced bills to ensure students receive refunds for room and board expenses. Other states are considering bills that would pause the collection of payments on state held student loans. Pending legislation also requires higher education institutions to develop and expand emergency preparedness and response plans. Legislators are also exploring strategies to address funding and appropriations for public colleges and universities.  

Immediate Challenges and Responses

Closures & Move to Online Instruction

Campus Closures

On March 6, the University of Washington became the first major university to cancel in-person classes and exams. By the middle of March, colleges across the country had followed suit and more than 1,100 colleges and universities in all 50 states have cancelled in-person classes or shifted to online-only instruction, many spring graduation ceremonies were also cancelled or postponed.

The main focus of higher education institutions is now on the fall 2020 semester, although significant uncertainty continues. Campus reopening plans vary drastically by school, but broadly fall into three categories.

  • Planning for In-Person Instruction (with social distancing): Schools including Arizona State UniversityUniversity of Alabamathe University of North Carolina system and Texas Tech University have announced plans to reopen campuses in the fall, with various social distancing approaches in place to protect student and faculty health. The Reopen Connecticut Task Force has developed a set of guidelines and procedures for reopening college campuses this fall. According to tracking from the Chronicle of Higher Education, roughly 60% of schools are planning for in-person instruction,
  • Creating a Hybrid Model or Limiting Students on Campus: Some schools are planning more limited reopening approaches with a blend of in-person and online learning. According to the Chronicle, 24% of institutions plan to operate a hybrid model during the fall semester. Other institutions such as Harvard and Princeton have announced plans to welcome some, but not all students back to campus in the fall.
  • Moving to Online-Only Instruction: Other schools such as the University of Southern California and the entire California State University system have announced they will continue online-only courses in fall 2020.  According to the Chronicle, 9% of institutions plan to operate online-only during the fall semester.

Online Instruction

As colleges move to online-only classes for instruction, additional concerns arise about the quality of educational instruction that can be provided remotely. Previous studies have warned that student performance, particularly for students who are already academically struggling, can seriously suffer in online courses. Other research has found that up to 20% of college students have issues accessing effective technology including working laptops and reliable high-speed internet.

Some colleges have also announced plans to help students who might lack access to an internet connection, including opening university libraries on a limited basis and distributing mobile hotspots to students. Southern New Hampshire University, an online university, published a guide with tips and resources to help other schools manage and improve online instruction.

The shift to online courses has also prompted many colleges to reconsider grading systems to try and accommodate and support students in transition. More than a dozen schools have announced plans to shift to pass/fail grading instead of standard letter grades. While this transition could help students in the short-term, switching courses to pass/fail could create potential complications for student credit transfer and graduate schools.

Immediate Financial Challenges

In the short-term, colleges and universities face a number of unexpected expenses from the outbreak, including:

  • Pro-rated refunds issued to students for room and board- These refunds will impact institutions differently, but for many schools with high numbers of students living on campus, the refunds will amount to a substantial unexpected cost. For example, the University of Wisconsin system, which includes 13 campuses, estimates that it will issue about $78 million in refunds.
  • Dorm cleaning operations- Many schools had to spend additional money to clean dorms and other facilities after students left.
  • Increased technology costs associated with moving to online courses.

Several colleges and universities have also announced hiring freezes for faculty and pay cuts or furloughs for staff. Concerns about adjunct and part-time faculty, who make up more than 40% of faculty nationwide, have also emerged. Nearly all adjunct faculty lack paid sick leave and few receive health insurance from their college.  

Admissions & Enrollment

Bans on large gatherings on campus have forced many colleges to postpone campus tours and admissions events. A survey of enrollment officials from EAB found that 36% of campuses are experiencing a decline in admissions visit requests. Several schools have begun planning and using virtual webinars and tours to support prospective students in the admissions process. The EAB survey found that 62% of campuses are adding video conferences and 46% are adding social media platform live events.

Many colleges typically send acceptance and financial aid notification letters in the spring, and May 1 is National College Decision Day, typically the deadline for students to declare their intent to attend a school and reserve a spot for the fall. Given the uncertainty around admissions and limitations on travel, more than 300 schools have extended this deadline to June 1 according to ACCEPT Group, a non-profit which is tracking admission deadline changes. Some institutions have extended deadlines even further. The University of Hawaii system said it would consider applications until August 1, 2020.

The outbreak has also disrupted the admissions process related to testing. Scheduled nationwide tests of both the ACT and SAT have been cancelled. The CollegeBoard which administers the SAT, announced that it will offer additional weekend administrations of the test beginning in August and will offer the test in many schools this fall, however the organization no longer plans to offer an at-home digital version of the exam. The ACT postponed its April 4 test date to June 13, although many testing centers have also cancelled administration for that exam.  Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the GRE, has also announced an at-home version of the exam will be available to students who wish to take the test for graduate and professional schools. According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, more than half of 4-year colleges and universities will be test-optional for the 2021 school year. 

Addressing Student Supports & Resources

Campus Housing and Dining

As increasing numbers of colleges limit in-person courses and services, some have noted the serious challenges these closures create for students. Many students depend on college dorms, dining halls and work-study programs for their housing, food and income. As schools limit these programs, students could struggle to access these resources. Additionally, the abrupt closure of campuses could impose serious and unplanned financial burdens on students who need to leave campus on short notice. Several colleges have created emergency relief funds, often with private donations to help students with expenses related to campus closures and disruptions.

Many schools are offering to refund students’ room and board charges on a pro-rated basis. Despite some student-led petitions and lawsuits, schools are not offering to reduce tuition as the outbreak shifts programs to online-only courses.  Several lawmakers have expressed concern and announced plans to introduce legislation to ensure colleges offer refunds for room and board fees.

Student Financial Aid & Affordability

The unprecedented closures of higher education campuses, as well as disruptions to K-12 schools, have significant impacts on both current and future students’ ability to receive and manage financial aid. The Department of Education issued additional guidance to provide flexibility to students and institutions that have had to close due to the outbreak.

As changes in high schools impact graduating seniors, state-run scholarships and higher education programs may be impacted as well. The Missouri Department of Higher Education issued revised guidance regarding scholarship eligibility. This guidance includes temporary changes to allow students who might be unable to meet certain requirements such as tutoring/mentoring hours to still be scholarship eligible. The changes also modify GPA requirements since schools are moving to an online-only model. The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission also provided new flexibilities for the renewal of state financial aid programs.

Student Loans

On March 20, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that all borrowers with federally held student loans will automatically have their interest rates set to 0% for a period of at least 60 days. In addition, each of these borrowers will have the option to suspend their payments for at least two months. Secretary DeVos also directed all federal student loan servicers to grant an administrative forbearance to any borrower with a federally held loan who requests one. The forbearance will be in effect for a period of at least 60 days, beginning on March 13, 2020.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) stimulus package includes the following provisions related to student loans:

  • Automatically defers payments and waives interest on federally-held student loans through September 30, 2020.
  • Suspends collection actions and penalties for borrowers with defaulted federal loans through September 30, 2020.
  • Allows companies to pay up to $5,250 of employee’s student loan payments on a tax-free basis through December 31, 2020.
  • Waives consecutive service requirement for Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program.
  • Waives requirement that students repay entire portion of federal student loan if they withdraw from courses due to COVID-19 emergency.

For more information about this federal stimulus visit this page.

On March 17, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state will temporarily halt the collection of some debts, including student debt owed to the state of New York, for at least 30 days. This action also suspends interest accrual on state held student loan debt. Cuomo also announced that the New York Department of Financial Services reached an agreement with private loan servicers to expand loan relief to private student loans. The agreement includes servicers who hold approximately 90% of private student loan debt in New York.

Student Work-Study

Roughly 700,000 undergraduate students receive Federal Work-Study subsidies each year. As college campuses close, many students who work on campus may be unable to report to work. The Department of Education has issued guidance to allow institutions to continue paying students Federal Work-Study wages during campus closures due to coronavirus, under certain circumstances. However, the decision to continue to pay students for work-study will also be up to the institution.

On March 16, Texas Governor Greg Abbott waived state regulations to allow college work-study students to continue receiving funding for work-study jobs. This waiver did not include additional funding, but it will allow institutions to continue paying students for hours they would have been able to work before the outbreak.

Students Abroad & International Students

According to the Institute for International Education, there were more than 1 million international students studying in the U.S. in 2019, an all-time high. International students make up about 6% of the total higher education student population. Since the Department of Homeland Security initially provided guidance that allowed international students to maintain their visa statuses, there has been additional guidance that has drawn significant backlash from higher education institutions and advocacy groups, that was rescinded by federal officials on July 14. However the most recent rules, released on July 24 do still prohibit new international students from enrolling in online-only coursework.

The disputes over rules come as schools are preparing for substantial declines in international enrollment, a report from the NAFSA: Association of International Educators estimates that institutions will lose at least $3 billion due international student enrollment declines in fall 2020. Additionally, most universities have shut down their study abroad programs and cancelled school-sanctioned trips.

Collegiate Athletics

The cancellation of all winter and spring athletics championships, including the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments has created significant impacts across college athletics. The NCAA announced that it will cut distributions to Division I schools by up to $375 million due to the cancellations of the tournaments. Division I schools had been expecting to receive just under $600 million in revenue through early June.

The NCAA announced that all three divisions would consider eligibility relief for student-athletes, potentially allowing seniors who participated in spring sports to play for another season. On March 30, the Division I Council announced it would extend eligibility for an additional year to all spring-sport student-athletes. The eligibility relief does not extend to winter sport athletes whose postseason tournaments were canceled. Winter sports include basketball, wrestling, and gymnastics. Individual schools will have to work to determine student scholarship eligibility.  Division III officials approved an additional semester and season of eligibility for all student-athletes participating in spring sports. On May 20, the NCAA announced it will allow Division I football and basketball athletes to resume voluntary activities on June 1.

Long-Term Concerns

Financial Uncertainty

The long-term financial strains of the outbreak will be felt in the potential for declining retention and lower fall enrollments.  Early examples from admissions offices suggest schools are raising acceptance rates to try and boost fall enrollment numbers in a period of uncertainty, but recent surveys and new projections suggest fall enrollments will be disrupted:

  • national survey from the Art and Science Group found that nearly two-thirds of prospective students are concerned they may not be able to attend their first-choice postsecondary institution. The survey found the largest reason for concern is that the school may no longer be affordable, but worries about the admissions process were also considerable.
  • Another survey found that nearly 70% of high school seniors believe their financial ability to attend college will be impacted by the pandemic.
  • According to data from the National College Attainment Network, new Free Application Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completions among high school seniors are down 3.7% compared to the prior year. FAFSA renewals among current college students are down nearly 5%.
  • Estimates from the American Council on Education forecast that enrollments for the next academic year will drop by 15%, including a 25% decline in the number of international students.  

The enrollment of international students, who tend to pay more in tuition, could be seriously limited, should travel bans remain in place.  China, which sends more international students to the US than any other country, has seen significant disruption to its testing and foreign application process. A survey from the Beijing Overseas Study Service found that 36% of Chinese students are changing their plans to study abroad because of the outbreak. A report from Moody’s Investor Service provided projections and estimates for how states will be impacted by enrollment changes if more students stay closer to home for postsecondary education.

State Legislation

NCSL has tracked over 60 bills related to postsecondary education and the COVID-19 pandemic. A complete list of these bills is available in the COVID-19: Education Bill Tracking Database which includes tracking for all education-related state action regarding the outbreak. For a complete list of state legislation related to COVID-19, please see NCSL’s State Action on Coronavirus (COVID-19) page.

The list below includes a few common areas of legislation related to postsecondary education as well as example legislation for each topic.

Refunds & Reimbursement
As colleges closed on-campus dining and housing, legislators have introduced legislation to ensure that students receive refunds for their room and board expenses.
  • New York SB 8107 – Requires SUNY and CUNY schools to refund students for housing credits and boarding charges used or charged for the period of time when such schools are closed or shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Pending.
Emergency Preparedness & Management
Legislators are also requiring higher education institutions and governing boards to create plans and address the emergency created by the pandemic.
  • Louisiana SB 481 –  Requires postsecondary education management boards to adopt policies to address the negative impacts on postsecondary students, faculty, and other employees by the public health emergency declared by the governor in response to the novel coronavirus, COVID -19. Enacted. 
  • Maryland HB 187—Requires public institutions of higher education to submit an outbreak response plan to the Maryland Department of Health on or before August 1 each year, beginning in 2021; requiring a public institution of higher education to implement the outbreak response plan under certain circumstances; requiring the outbreak response plan to include certain processes and the provision of certain staff. Enacted.
Funding & Appropriations
Given the significant financial uncertainty and challenges facing universities, states are also considering legislation to address funding and support for institutions.
  • Massachusetts HB 4730—Would establish Emergency Fund for Public Higher Education Institutions. The fund would include grants to help institutions cover the loss of revenue and unexpected expenses associated with the outbreak. Funds could also be used to cover employee’s lost wages, expanded sick time costs and other employment related expenses. As introduced, the bill would provide $125 million in funding. Prefiled. 
  • Washington HB 2965– Includes provisions for institutions of higher education to separately identify state spending by the appropriations in this act and for other unanticipated spending in response to the coronavirus outbreak funded by appropriations in the omnibus operating appropriations act.  Enacted.
Financial Aid
States are also considering legislation to address student financial aid. Some introduced legislation would modify existing financial aid programs with additional flexibility, while other bills would create new programs some of which would support essential or healthcare workers.
  • Louisiana HB 870 – Provides modifications for the application and approval process for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) scholarship program. Waives some requirements and extends deadlines including for ACT/SAT testing. Enacted. 
  • New York SB 8271 – Provides financial aid grants (up to $1,500) to individuals who served as essential workers during the state of emergency declared as a result of COVID-19 and are seeking college education or career education and training. Pending.
Student Loans
While federal student loan borrowers have received some relief from the CARES Act, states are considering additional measures to provide additional support. These bills consider additional suspensions of payments and interest on state-run student loan programs.
  • Massachusetts HD 4961 – Would suspend payment and collection of student loan payments on student loans issued by the Commonwealth for the duration of the State of Emergency and 360 days after the Emergency Order has expired. Also provides that interest will not accrue, and fees will not be imposed.  Pending.

Link to full article can be found here.

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