Covid-19 is accelerating a previously slow reduction in the number of American schools offering bachelors degrees. I am not alone in predicting hundreds of them may close in the next few years. Falling enrollments and shaky finances even before the pandemic had weakened schools, many of which the coronavirus will kill through further enrollment declines, falling state subsidies, etc. Massive federal subsidies and/or a much sooner than anticipated return to campus normalcy may render that pessimistic forecast erroneous, but neither seem terribly likely.
At the same time, many troubled colleges are aggressively fighting back. For example, my school, Ohio University (OU) was not, pre-Covid-19, on life support, but it was materially weakened and suffering enrollment decline. The oldest university in the Midwest with a gorgeous campus with some buildings nearly two centuries old, OU has announced it is reducing staff by about 400, roughly one-third faculty, one-third unionized support staff, and one-third campus administrators.
Like many schools, OU will pivot to a new, smaller normal. For example, the economics department where I teach had 17 faculty this year, but will have only 14 next fall. Teaching loads will inch upwards for some. The university is furloughing nearly everyone else, forcing them to accept modest pay cuts. That, plus use of some reserve funds, will insure OUs survival. Hopefully, it will also remedy more fundamental problems that had already weakened it (inattention to basic teaching and research priorities, a de-emphasis on academic excellence) and live to finish a third century of service.
But hundreds of other schools face a more dismal fate. Three things happen to colleges that cannot sustain themselves. Very often, they simply diethey cease operations. In the last year or so, for example, two schools existing since before the Civil War, Green Mountain College in Vermont and MacMurray College in Illinois announced they are closing, and the president of Wells College in New York said recently it will almost certainly face the same fate if the pandemic prevents its opening in the fall.
A second option is to merge with a fiscally stronger nearby institution, losing autonomy and a separate identity, although sometimes maintaining some institutional attributes (including the physical campus). The most recent example of that is Pine Manor College in Massachusetts, once a womens school, merging into Boston College. Both are located in relatively upscale suburban Boston. A few years ago, struggling Urbana University in Ohio merged into Franklin University in Columbus, although that life support is now being withdrawn, so Urbana is permanently closing down.
Sometimes a school announces it is closing and occasionally actually does close for a short time, only to undergo resurrection engineered typically by wealthy alumni. In 2015, a moderately affluent Virginia womens college, Sweetbriar, announced it would have to close, but a fundraising campaign by alumni has kept it going, although enrollments are anemic. A few years earlier, a well known progressive school, Antioch College, had closed, only to reopen three years later. It exists today with a modest number of students. Another school with an avant-garde reputation, Massachusetts Hampshire College, openly solicited a merger offer a couple of years ago, but after an alumni uproar then recanted and remains a small independent college after some additional alumni support from prominent graduates like Ken Burns.
The pandemic is pushing more schools to first try the OU solution of massive budget reduction and, if that does not succeed, to move towards closure. The two most vulnerable types of schools: small liberal arts colleges similar to those mentioned above, with localized reputations and very modest endowments; and secondary state universities in similar circumstance that have faced major enrollment declines in recent years. Particularly at risk are schools in such low population growth Eastern and Midwestern states as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois, although the threat extends to the far reaches of the nation. Even before the pandemic, for example, I spoke of the University of Alaskas huge budget reductions and rethinking of its mission. Indeed, to date few state schools have died, but I think the pandemic may lead to a large number of institutions, especially branches of major flagship schools, to close (the University of Wisconsin is moving aggressively in that direction).