Coronavirus and Closing Colleges

David Randall

Colleges won’t die because of coronavirus—at least not coronavirus acting on its own. They also suffer from pre-existing conditions and comorbidities— accreditation-induced rigor, activism-induced intelligence deficiency syndrome (AIIDS), administrative hypertrophy, anemic endowment, asphyxiating enrollment, and a host of other ailments down through the alphabet.

Hundreds of colleges were dying slowly. Coronavirus will hasten the die-off. Of the more than 4,500 colleges and universities in the United States, some 10% could die. Any small, poor private college is on a death watch.

The public state university systems will not die, but they will suffer severe cuts. Any local community college could be declared “redundant.” Any low-enrollment department might be shut down.

In every institution, public or private, new infrastructure and maintenance both will be deferred. Hiring freezes will devastate a generation of new PhDs—and even the administrators may be reluctant to make new hires. Scholarships for poor students will shrink.

The surviving institutions of higher education will be poorer and shabbier—save, perhaps, a few elite institutions such as Harvard and Stanford. The 1% of higher education will sail on unruffled as their less fortunate peers sink beneath the waves.

We cannot preserve our entire higher education system unscathed. But we can institute new policy to minimize the death toll coronavirus will inflict on our colleges and universities. Real educational diversity—the diversity produced by different institutions, with varying institutional goals—is worth preserving at some cost, if not at any price.

Congress should institute a Higher Education Insurance Corporation (HEIC), modeled on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). HEIC will provide emergency loans to failing colleges, provided that they undertake a series of stipulated reforms to restore financial solvency. These reforms could include consortium agreements with other institutions, and a publicly announced plan for how the college will proceed in the case of bankruptcy.

Congress should provide matching funds for private and public institutions’ subscriptions to HEIC. Higher education institutions with larger endowments should be assessed at a higher rate than institutions with small endowments. Harvard’s $30 billion endowment (even after the coronavirus market collapse) should provide insurance assistance for Florida College’s $11 million endowment.

The big colleges won’t contribute unless they’re forced to. Congress should make participation in the HEIC a prerequisite for eligibility to receive Title IV student loans and grants, as well as federal research grants.

Congress should also remove eligibility to receive Title IV student loans and grants from the 100 private colleges and universities with the largest endowments. Federal support for students’ educations should be channeled to colleges that lack the resources of our wealthiest colleges.

Finally, Congress should pass laws to facilitate credit transfer, so that students at failing colleges can apply their credits to public university systems. Students’ careers and sunk costs shouldn’t be held hostage to colleges’ bankruptcies.

Many colleges will still go bankrupt. But measures such as these will limit the damage—and ensure that government money focuses on helping the poor majority of higher education institutions, and not the wealthy few.

David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Jose Fontano, Public Domain

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