What will be the Ripple Effect of COVID-19 on Higher Education?

By Dr. Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

If you aren’t getting much information on COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus, you must either be living in a cage or are currently under quarantine. The news and discussion is everywhere, as it should be given the seriousness of this global health issue.

According to Global Health Now, COVID-19 is more contagious than SARS virus in the early 2000s although less deadly.[1] The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that early, aggressive measures can help stop transmission and curtail the virus. While it is difficult to assess how aggressive the US approach has been, it clearly has not been aggressive enough. As of this writing, only 8,554 people have been tested for COVID-19 in the US, compared to 210,114 in South Korean and 60,761 in Italy. The virus was later in arriving here, but that, in itself, should have given us ample opportunity to prepare accordingly.

To show the pace of this virus, on February 1, the WHO released a report and response plan for COVID-19. As of that date, it listed 11,953 confirmed cases worldwide.[2] In their report released yesterday, a mere five weeks later, they report 113,702 confirmed cases and 4,012 deaths. Over 80,000 of these cases are in China.

The impact of COVID-19 on society will be staggering. Already to date, major festivals, including Coachella, have been postponed. Professional sports leagues, such as the National Hockey League (NHL) and National Basketball Association (NBA), are considering playing with no spectators. The NHL has already banned media from locker rooms. The International Ice Hockey Federation cancelled the upcoming Women’s World Championship, which was to take place in halifax this April. You can likely expect that there will be a major decision regarding this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. On Monday, the Olympic Games media summit in Tokyo, set to begin on March 16, was cancelled.

Colleges and universities aren’t immune (not a pun) to the implications of COVID-19. We are receiving daily reports about decision being made by colleges around the country. In the past few days, Harvard University has advised students, who are on spring break, to stay home and not return to the university. As of this morning, at least 13 colleges have closed and 46 colleges moved online. More will come. Virginia Tech has advised students and staff who have visited high-risk nations during their spring break last week to self-quarantine for 14 days. Fillable forms are available on the Tech website.

Just this morning the Chronicle of Higher Education posted “Coronavirus and the Great Online-Learning Experiment. Online education isn’t new to many students anymore. In 2017, one quarter of undergraduates at four-year public institutions were taking at least one online course and another eight percent were taking all their classes online.[3] But as the title of the article says, this is a unique experiment into online learning for higher education. It is, for all intent, a natural experiment. The findings will be interesting.

Still, this is an upheaval for higher education. There remain many questions about the cost associated with such shutdowns, including what happens to students who purchased meal and rooming plans? There is some talk that the federal government may come to the rescue, but the sheer scope of the cost of COVID-19, even only in the higher education sector, is difficult to fathom.

Regardless, it is not hard to understand that a continued removal of students from traditional higher education will have large impacts on institutional staffing, re: food services, residential halls, and other workers who deal directly with students.

Another massive issue for higher education is what will happen to international students? The recent Open Doors 2019 report by the Institute of International Education (IIE) students at US institutions illustrates the slow decline in enrollment of international students for much of the past decade. The closing of our international doors, per se, to students will have a dramatic impact on re-enrollment for these students. Without some level of government assistance, many colleges could close their doors in the next year or two, due in large part to COVID-19.

Even without consideration of international students, higher education has been in a free fall the last several years with regard to enrollment. This is about the last thing the sector needed.

In the end, this will all work out. But with a vaccine months and perhaps years away, it will be a major issue for the rest of this academic year and into fall 2020 at a minimum. Certainly there will be more on this in the coming days and weeks.

In closing, many people have been talking about the need for higher education, as we know it, to alter its way and turn away from the traditional formats of the 20th century. This may be the time. Stay tuned.


[1] https://www.globalhealthnow.org/2020-02/coronavirus-expert-reality-check#frieden-2.

[2] https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/srp-04022020.pdf

[3] https://www.chronicle.com/article/Are-Colleges-Prepared-to-Move/248217?cid=wcontentgrid_hp_1b.

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