Home Online Education Access and Affordability Coronavirus: Its Impact on the Higher Education Experience
Coronavirus: Its Impact on the Higher Education Experience

Coronavirus: Its Impact on the Higher Education Experience


The month of March was not a good month for higher education. With the national, state, and local social distancing recommendations, college leaders recognized that college campuses had to be closed. Within two weeks, almost all of our colleges and universities transitioned to online classes with students attending classes remotely from home, their off-campus apartments, or in a few cases, from their dormitories. Winter athletic championships were cancelled, as was the spring athletic season.

More recently, many colleges and universities have announced that their summer sessions will be conducted online or not conducted at all. A few colleges and universities have announced that they will open for the fall semester, while working hard to continue a social distancing recommendation until a coronavirus vaccine is available for all. Other colleges and universities have delayed the announcement of whether or not the campus will open in the fall.

Naturally, the uncertainty about the campus environment has created uncertainty among students and parents. One survey indicates that as many as 20 percent of incoming college freshmen are considering deferring their enrollment in college next fall. There are numerous cases where returning students have indicated that if their fall semester is conducted online, they expect a subsequent reduction in tuition and fees since online attendance was not why they chose their traditional college experience.

The prorated return of spring semester fees related to room and board charges exposed how dependent traditional public and private institutions are on those revenues to help offset their fixed-cost structure. Continuing to operate online in the fall will not only deprive the institutions of their room and board revenues, but will also obviously stir up more calls for tuition refunds.

Private colleges and universities that are tuition-dependent are considered the most vulnerable. At the same time, public colleges and universities are highly dependent on state support, and the impact of business closures, unemployment, and coronavirus hospitalization costs on state budgets has not yet been determined. One estimate is that there may be as much as $510 billion in unaddressed state budget shortfalls.

Unlike K-12 education and Medicaid programs that have state funding mandates, public higher education does not have such a funding safety net. It will likely have to absorb a significant decrease in funding that will translate to budget cuts, furloughs, and tuition increases at a time when many families are going through similar financial stress.

I have observed the higher ed sector from within for nearly two decades and from the outside for the three decades prior to that. The perception that the cost of college attendance has reached unsustainable levels has become a reality, with more and more colleges offering tuition discounts at or beyond 50 percent of published prices.

The current coronavirus pandemic only accelerates the future, one where more and more prospective students consider the cost of college and the return on that investment with expected career opportunities. Just as many retail stores and restaurants are projected to close in 2020, there will likely be dozens — if not hundreds — of colleges that will not reopen if social distancing is required in the fall.

If some of the biggest brands in higher education choose to expand their online offerings as a result AND offer the same degree at a much lower price if the student attends online, expect a flight to those brands. If that does not occur, expect more price-sensitive students to more seriously consider quality and affordable online options, regardless of the brand. When the multi-year period of disruption is over, I expect that we’ll classify it as more of a shakeout versus a shakeup.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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