I am no public health expert, but if the novel coronavirus is pretty severe, as many experts are saying, like other institutions in society America’s colleges and universities will suffer. Classes may have to be cancelled, public lectures scrubbed, athletic contests (March Madness itself!) compromised (the latter a potentially huge loss to the NCAA).
But besides these obvious effects, there are several less obvious effects. Universities depend heavily on outsiders—taxpayers and private donors—for financial sustenance. If the coronavirus’s disruptive force triggers a significant economic downturn, certainly highly plausible, tax receipts will fall, leading, after some lag, to reduced state subsidies for public universities. There is a real probability the near 20% drop in stock prices from their peak will be sustained, maybe even worsened. This would particularly hit schools in three ways. First, endowments will lose value, in the long run necessitating some reduction in institutional financial support. Second, as the wealth of donors falls, university private contributions will also take a hit.
There is a third potential financial headache: a deterioration in the financial condition of pension funds to support present and future retirees. If stock prices fall 20%, other non-equity valuations stay constant, and endowments and pension funds have 60% of their money in equities, most will take about a 12% reduction in their value. Since some pension funds are on shaky grounds to begin with, this could lead to some real pain and suffering. One unintended consequence: some faculty and staff may defer retirement beyond original plans.
Moreover, this is obviously a global health catastrophe, and American universities are more dependent than previously on the international economy. Foreign students are an important revenue source—they were a lifesaver as some states reduced subsidies to schools after the 2008 financial crisis. It is hard to believe this will not have some negative impact on enrollments—the only issue is how much.
There are other international interactions as well. Many schools have promoted study abroad programs, sometimes even for profit (allowing instruction to be provided by lower cost educational providers overseas while students still pay American tuition fees). The perceived risks associated with prolonged absence from the U.S. will probably seem greater as horror stories spread about people getting sick from travel or quarantined in rooms with little outside contact.
To be sure, we do not really know whether the American impact this year will be measured in a few thousand sick individuals and a few hundred deaths, or a much bigger outbreak, possibly worst than the 1918 “Spanish” flu occurring at a time when transportation and communication costs were vastly higher, possibly reducing contagion a bit from what it would be today.
However, remember Plato: necessity is the mother of invention. Already schools that are closing like the University of Washington or Columbia University are using internet capabilities to increase existing use of online technology. Not all learning can be done effectively online, but certainly some can. Indeed, the health crisis-induced expansion of online learning might lead to a revelation: students can learn a lot of stuff as well online as by the use of the same technology that Socrates used over two millennia ago, talking to an audience (via lectures and oral discussion).
Still, there are some schools that are fragile financially for which this unanticipated development could be sufficiently large that it is their death knell—what if planned new students for next fall are reduced several percent, enough to push some tuition-dependent schools into closing? Maybe not very likely, but clearly plausible. Especially vulnerable are tuition-dependent schools without much endowment, including most HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), many non-selective state schools and some community colleges.
On a slightly more cheerful note to conclude an otherwise depressing epistle, when the economy turns downward with unemployment rising and incomes falling, college enrollments actually tend to rise—some students finding it hard to get good jobs decide to invest in their future earning capacity by attending college. So schools do not usually see big enrollment drops in the short run arising from downturns, even though their revenue is constrained by poor economic conditions.
Let’s hope this is much ado about next to nothing and the negative effects turn out to be minimal.