The Impact of Coronavirus on American Colleges

March 10, 2020

As of the publication of this blog, there are far more unknowns than knowns regarding coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. What is known is that, worldwide, there have been over 100,000 confirmed cases and close to 400 deaths. The United States has seen 500 cases and over 25 deaths. An economy that, prior to the rapid spread of the disease, had been humming along, has plummeted in recent weeks as the S&P 500 has fallen 19% below its high-water mark of February 19th. Airline flights have emptied out, cruise ships have been quarantined, and international travel has slowed to a trickle. Eight U.S. states and numerous cities have declared a state of emergency, and many other state governments and companies have begun taking precautions like increasing telework and strongly discouraging (or outright banning) large gatherings.

Without diving into wild speculation, the College Transitions team wanted to briefly update our readers as to how the virus has affected the higher education world so far, as well as how it could potentially impact the next academic year and/or the 2020-21 admissions cycle. Of course, we don’t know what will happen with the spread/containment of the virus in the coming hours, days, weeks, and months; we simply want our readers to be prepared for all possibilities so they can best plan ahead for their college education. Let’s first look at what has already occurred over the last few weeks since coronavirus first surfaced in the United States:

Early Impact of Coronavirus on Higher Education

Moving to online classes

Thus far, the state of Washington has been hit harder than any other, so it is little surprise that the first major action taken by an institution of higher education came from their state university system. The University of Washington announced on Friday, March 6th that all classes will move to an online-only format for the remainder of their winter quarter; this suspends face-to-face meetings until at least March 20th.

On March 9th, Princeton University decided to move all of their lectures and seminars to a virtual platform until at least April 5th. That same day, Columbia University canceled classes for two days and switched to remote instruction for the remainder of the week. This came in the wake of a member of the school community being quarantined after exposure to the virus. Similarly, Stanford University elected to cancel in-person classes for the final two weeks of the winter quarter after a medical faculty member tested positive.

March 10th saw Harvard University, UC Berkeley, Amherst College and Ohio State, with its enrollment of 60,000+, all announce plans for a temporary shift to all-online courses.

Cancellation of international programs

Many colleges began by suspending school-sponsored travel to countries such as China and Italy that have been hit hardest by the virus. However, in recent days, more institutions have banned all university-sponsored travel abroad this spring, and, in some cases, the summer as well.

International students unable to return to campus

Since travel restrictions were put into place by the U.S. government on February 1st, after most schools had already begun their spring semesters, there were not excessive numbers of Chinese students who found themselves stuck at home. However, schools with atypical academic calendars like the University of Delaware were affected—226 students at U of D were indeed unable to return to campus for the start of the spring semester.

Changes to athletics and other extracurricular activities

In their March 2nd “Interim Guidance for Administrators of U.S. Institutions of Higher Education,” the CDC recommended the following steps:

  • Temporarily cancel extracurricular group activities and large events.
    • Cancel or postpone events such as club meetings, performances, social events, athletic team practices, and sporting events.
  • Discourage students, staff, and faculty from gathering or socializing anywhere.
    • Discourage gatherings at places like at a friend’s house, a favorite restaurant, or a local coffee shop.

We’re already starting to see some drastic changes to collegiate activates that take place outside of the classroom. Last week, Johns Hopkins decided to play a Division III basketball tournament before an empty arena, the Atlantic 10 has already banned handshakes for their upcoming basketball tournament, and Chicago State flat-out canceled their two remaining regular season games. On March 10th, the Ivy League announced a complete cancellation of their men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

Potential Future Impact of Coronavirus on Higher Education

March Madness

Staying on the topic of college athletics, NCAA officials are busy weighing contingency plans for the start of the March Madness basketball tournament. They may elect to limit the number of tournament sites, not allow fans at all, or just provide ample hand sanitizer stations. The options run the gamut in terms of their severity and decisions will have to be made soon—the tournament starts on March 19th.

International students

It is, of course, way too early to know for sure, but it remains a possibility that high school seniors from foreign countries who applied to enter American universities in the fall of 2020 may still be subject to travel restrictions and/or quarantine scenarios at that time. It is impossible to know right now whether or not international students will be allowed into the country by the end of this upcoming summer.

Many universities are already on edge contemplating what would happen if Chinese students are unable to report to campus for the start of the fall semester. There are currently approximately 370,000 Chinese students studying in the United States. An additional 50,000 international students who hail from South Korea are presently at U.S. colleges. As such, there is undeniable potential for a major impact in both the enrollment and admissions realms should the havoc caused by COVID-19 persist in the months to come.

Incoming freshmen in the United States

The hope is that COVID-19 is well under control by this coming August when freshmen typically move into their dorms. However, it’s simply too early to know whether the virus will come under control in the next 5-6 months. Will schools start on time? Will most colleges operate online? What will happen to lab-based courses? When will clubs and athletic events return to normal? These are all questions that are, frustratingly, not answerable at this time, but on the minds of higher education professions as well as college-bound teens.

2020-2021 Applicants

Through an optimist’s lens, the disease will be brought under control in short time, and will be a distant memory by the time next year’s seniors are applying to college, let alone when they actually aim to set foot on a college campus in the late summer of 2021. Yet, historically, we do have to be aware that some epidemic/pandemics (experts do not currently agree on the right nomenclature for coronavirus) have had second and third waves. As with the potential impact on current high school seniors’ ability to head to campus this summer, we simply do not have any answers at this time. However, college visits over spring break, in-person admissions interviews, or even attendance at college fairs are all highly likely to be affected by the virus, so it is an almost a certainty that the spread of the disease will – at the very least – alter the college search process for the Class of 2021.

Final Thoughts

We will update this blog as further news breaks on the impact of the virus on colleges in the United States. The CT team hopes that you are your family remain safe and healthy as we wish for conditions to improve across the globe in the very near future.