Every year, hundreds of thousands of people enroll in a college or university. It is a staple in American society. Yet, with the uncertainty of the novel coronavirus comes budget cuts, furloughs, and declining enrollment.
Many higher education institutions have made the transition to online learning for the spring semester and will remain online for the summer term and the foreseeable future.
But has the damage already been done?
Many believe so, specifically, for smaller community colleges that don’t have the necessary cash flow and stability of their larger, university counterparts. Abundances of schools have already announced significant changes.
Among them are large universities such as the University of Arizona, announcing they will have budget cuts and reduce their employee’s salaries. Other schools, such as MacMurray college, have closed entirely, citing declining enrollment and budgets before the virus started. The latter is the worst alternative, and what’s worrisome is what could follow.
Importance of community colleges
If nothing else, the coronavirus is the straw that broke the camel’s back. The camel being smaller education institutions. The downright importance of community colleges is enormous—lower in attendance, yet, vital to the post-secondary educational ecosystem. Many individuals are never given the opportunity to go to a prestigious university or cannot afford it. Community colleges are just that, the community’s college. They provide those without a favorable start in life the chance at having a better one.
Not to mention, community colleges are a funnel. Many students, even the brightest, often opt to attend a local community college their first two years before heading off to a university. Why? Well, first and foremost is cost. Additionally, the courses a student must take in their first two years before deciding on a major are basic. These general education courses can be taken at nearly any institution.
Since we’re talking about college, let’s do a little math. By removing some community colleges from the equation, there’s no longer a funnel of students heading to more prominent universities every semester. The closing and removal of some community colleges were discussed long before the coronavirus started, which would cause significant harm to the higher education system as a whole and have a tremendous effect on our society.
Revitalizing the education system
To keep the current balance of our post-secondary educational system, we, as a country, must find a way to bolster these smaller institutions. The federal CARES act is supposed to aid many colleges during this time of need with the global health crisis. A portion of the funding goes to higher education, and at least half must go to students. While this is undoubtedly providing relief to some schools, it doesn’t matter for others because it’s too late.
Schools that have seen declining enrollment, increased competition, and budget cuts year after year are closing. Because of the virus, they have no choice. Many of them were struggling to stay afloat before the infection, and now, they can’t keep up. Colleges are like businesses in that; the students are the customers. Institutions across the United States have seen a sharp decline in enrollment for the summer term, and the same is expected for the fall semester, typically the highest revenue-producing. If students aren’t attending, they aren’t paying. While some colleges can lean on state funding, others cannot.
If we, as a country, value our post-secondary learning environment, we must take swift action. There has to be an increase in funding, specifically for smaller colleges that are on the verge of, if not already closing. Additionally, higher education employs over 3 million people. The severity of budget cuts throughout the nation is hurting employees and forcing them to reevaluate their career choice altogether. Our thought leaders and game-changers within society must be protected to the greatest extent possible.
“Part of the human experience is our undying quench for learning.”
As we look at the state of higher education post coronavirus, we must view the glass half full. Where there are deficiencies, there is an opportunity. Many economic leaders believe America is on course for a recession. What comes after a recession? Many lost jobs and, with it, a quest for a fulfilling career with stability. Where do members of society turn? Higher education.
After the 2008 financial crisis, there was an extreme increase in college enrollment in the United States. In uncertain times, people want certainty. They believe a strong educational background, mixed with a compromised job market, will give them just that.
To anyone working in higher education, such as myself, we must go back to our roots. Why are we in this field? To give anyone who wants it, the chance at a better life. Going to college has assuredly changed my life, and if you’ve gone, I am sure it has yours, too. We must urge leaders at any level to act swiftly, fund, aid, and protect perhaps our most sacred industry, higher education.