Pre- COVID-19 realities will become Post-COVID-19 inevitables
It will take some time before we can completely unpack the long-term and long-
lasting impact of COVID-19 on higher education but what is clear is that the
pandemic accelerated several trends that were already taking place in higher
The dictionary defines inevitable as something that is certain to happen;
something that is unavoidable. This article will present facts that illustrate why
increased college and university closures, mergers, and collaboration with
alternative higher education providers can only accelerate in the post-pandemic
higher education world because they were already a part of the pre-pandemic
higher education landscape.
In his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen, Harvard
University professor, makes the case for predicting that half of the 4,000 colleges
and universities in the U. S. would be bankrupt in the next few decades.
In his 2020 book, The College Stress Test, published in February 2020, Professor
Robert Zemsky, predicted that 10% of colleges and universities faced severe risk
of closing. By March 2020, because of COVID-19, the figure was increased to 20%,
or about 200 schools in danger of going out of business.
Approximately 8% of all colleges and universities in the U. S. enroll more than
15,000 students; 40% enroll less than 1,000. A 2017 study conducted by
University Business revealed that 70% of four-year private nonprofit and public
institutions with enrollments under 1,000 students had at least three risk factors:
high debt service, high discount rates, and low endowments.
Declining undergraduate enrollment, excess capacity, tuition increases of more
than 8% per year, absence of online programs, and the changing condition of the
marketplace are other significant risk factors.
Before the pandemic, a place you didn’t want to be was in a private, independent
college in the Midwest.
Professor Robert Zemsky
Since 2000, approximately 100 higher education mergers have taken place in the
U. S. One reason for this is excess capacity and declining enrollment. In 2011
college enrollment was 20 million students. In 2020, the number was 18 million.
An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, in August 2020, outlined a number
of states investigating mergers or have already taken steps to merge schools
within their state, including: Alaska, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Pennsylvania,
Vermont, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Wisconsin.
In October 2020, the Pennsylvania Board of Governors approved the next step in
consolidation that could result in California Clarion and Edinboro universities
merging into a single unit in western Pennsylvania.
In Arizona, Dr. Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, will lead a
new partnership between the state’s three public four-year universities that will
focus among other initiatives, on cost effectiveness.
The University System of Georgia merged its campuses to make its operations
more efficient and effective.
Collaboration with alternative educational providers
In 2012, global private investment in alternative providers of higher education
courses was $2 billion. In 2019, the figure was $19 billion.
According to information published by Credential Engine, a nonprofit
organization, there are nearly one million unique credentials available in the U. S.
including degrees, certificates, and badges from alternative providers.
In 2018, approximately 35% of undergraduate students took a distance education
course. In 2019, the figure was closer to 100%.
In the past year the number of universities using Coursera courses increased from
30 schools to 3,700 colleges and universities. Since March 2020, over 21 million
learners took a course offered by Coursera, an increase of 353%.
Coding boot camps have increasingly joined forces with colleges and universities
to offer students short-term, technical training. Last year, universities worldwide
forged at least 73 partnerships with boot camp providers and according to
Credential Engine, a nonprofit organization, there are nearly one million unique
credentials available to higher education learners, including degrees, badges, and
certificates from alternative providers.
Collaboration between “traditional” colleges and universities and “non-
traditional” alternative providers should be a part of every school’s vision and
As previously written, the pandemic will only accelerate college and university
closures and mergers because these trends were already in place. Because of the
pandemic, schools cannot expect state higher education budgets to increase or
even to remain the same as they were prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.
Because of the pandemic, private colleges and universities, especially those with
enrollments of under 1,000 students, cannot expect that increasing tuition each
year and offering high discount rates will result in a substantial increase in
student enrollment in the future. The pandemic has presented students with
several options, including less costly course offerings.
Many colleges and universities will not disappear but they will change
organizationally. And what can emerge may be a consolidated, entrepreneurial
school with leaner academic and administrative structures and increased
efficiencies that will create a collaborative approach to solving enrollment and