In Brief

How Are U.S. Colleges Dealing With Coronavirus?

The coronavirus pandemic has forced colleges and universities into a precarious balancing act between student health and financial survival. What does it portend for the future of higher education?  

The pandemic of the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, has upended the world of higher education, with college and universities scrambling to put together plans for reopening in the fall. Facing a decline in enrollment and revenue, as well as higher health-related costs, many have resorted to layoffs. Some experts say the disruption could ultimately be beneficial, but others warn of a hit to U.S. competitiveness.

How has the pandemic affected higher education?

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It has wreaked havoc on institutions of higher learning, which are facing a one-two punch of lost revenue and increased costs. Colleges and universities face an impossible choice: allow students to return to campus and risk their health, or switch to remote instruction and risk having them not return at all. 

Schools are also grappling with a projected precipitous drop—estimates range from 25 percent to nearly 100 percent—in the number of foreign students, who are a crucial source of revenue because they typically pay full tuition.

Nearly half of U.S. high school students surveyed by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company said they would likely defer enrollment or pick a different school in the event of a fully remote fall semester. More than 80 percent said they would want a tuition discount if instruction is entirely remote. Colleges and universities also stand to lose out on the money generated by athletic programs and on-campus dining and housing. Public universities are being hurt by state budget cuts. Meanwhile, schools are spending millions of dollars on safety measures, including protective gear, cleaning supplies, and additional staff. 

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Schools are also grappling with a projected precipitous drop—estimates range from 25 percent to nearly 100 percent—in the number of foreign students, who are a crucial source of revenue because they typically pay full tuition. In early July, the Donald J. Trump administration sought to block foreign students taking only online classes from remaining in the country but soon after rescinded the rule for returning students amid public outcry. Restrictions will still apply to new international students, who will not be allowed to enter the country with a fully online course load. 

How are they adapting?

In the early months of the outbreak, colleges and universities sent students home and transitioned to remote instruction. But with the pandemic showing no signs of abating, schools are now facing difficult questions about the fall semester. Many had planned a hybrid approach, offering a mix of online and in-person classes. But as cases continue to surge, a growing number are reversing course and opting for fully remote instruction. 

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The campus of Georgetown University is seen nearly empty as classes were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The campus of Georgetown University in Washington, DC, is seen nearly empty as classes were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Some schools are only allowing a portion of students on campus at any one time—bringing back freshmen in the fall and seniors in the spring, for example. Bigger schools with medical programs and connections to labs are in a better position to conduct mass testing than smaller schools, which will have to rely entirely on private labs. Several schools are pushing students to use contact-tracing apps to help contain outbreaks.

Many schools have been forced to lay off faculty and staff to balance their budgets. According to a Chronicle of Higher Education tracker, more than fifty thousand employees across academia have been laid off, furloughed, or not offered contract renewals since the start of the pandemic. A few smaller schools have closed completely.

Congress has tried to help. A federal stimulus package passed in late March set aside $14 billion for colleges and universities, though higher-education lobbying groups—which had pushed for more than $50 billion in aid—criticized the funding as inadequate. Democrats and Republicans alike have proposed additional funding for schools as part of a fourth, and potentially final, stimulus measure, but it is unclear how much of it will go toward higher education and if it will be conditioned on schools reopening for in-person instruction.

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What are other countries doing?

The United States has the most confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths in the world; most other developed countries have been able to more effectively contain their outbreaks. Still, many foreign schools have been affected. Major universities across Europe and Asia plan to offer a mix of online and in-person instruction during the next academic year. Some schools in India, which has been hit particularly hard by the virus, have announced plans to go fully online for at least the first semester. 

What does this mean for the future of higher education?

Some experts argue that the pandemic could provide an overdue disruption to higher education as the forced adoption of remote-learning technologies could reduce costs and thus broaden access to higher education. 

CFR’s Edward Alden acknowledges that more online education could bring benefits. However, he warns that shaking up higher education risks “cutting off the heart of U.S. economic competitiveness,” since the research and other collaborative efforts these institutions undertake are directly linked to innovation. 

Relatedly, the Trump administration has suspended new work visas and has considered limiting a long-standing program that allows foreign students to temporarily work in the United States after graduation. Alden says such moves could deter top students from other countries, who have long contributed to the United States’ edge in science and technology.

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