Monday, April 20, 2020

Coronavirus is a black swan event for regional public colleges: Many will be forced to close

A black swan event is an unexpected occurrence that has potentially devastating consequences. For higher education, the coronavirus pandemic is a black swan event.

Even before COVID-19 forced a shutdown of the national economy, American colleges were suffering from enrollment declines. Declining birthrates have led to a shrinking number of college-age individuals in recent years. Small liberal arts colleges and for-profit institutions were particularly hard hit.

Regional public colleges are also suffering. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state's system of public universities saw an enrollment decline of 20 percent between 2010 and 2019. One small public college, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, saw its student body shrink by 61 percent to less than 1,000 students. Lock Haven University, another Pennsylvania public school, experienced an enrollment drop of 42 percent.

Thanks in large part to the coronavirus pandemic, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education projects that its 14 public universities will lose between $70 million and $100 million this spring. Some state legislators are calling for the system's small colleges to close.

Several Ohio public universities have also seen enrollment declines. Ohio University, Kent State University, the University of Toledo, and the University of Akron all lost students in 2019.

The University of Wisconsin's 26 two- and four-year institutions have recorded enrollment drops as well. UW's two-year colleges experienced a shocking 49 percent drop between 2010 and 2019.  One institution, UW-Plattville at Richland, a satellite campus of UW-Plattville, lost 58 percent of its students in just one year.  As reported by the Wisconsin State Journal, the University of Wisconsin's branch campuses had fewer students in 2019 than they did in 1973.

All these enrollment drops took place before the coronavirus pandemic showed up. And enrollment declines will surely accelerate in the wake of statewide stay-at-home orders that have triggered staggering drops in state tax revenues.

In the years to come, regional publ colleges all over the United States will be forced to close. Many states have far too many regional campuses. As public revenues decline in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the states simply can't afford to keep them open.

Moreover, increased opportunities for online learning are making regional campuses obsolete. If students are going to take their classes from home computers, there is no need to have a brick-and-mortar campus in their neighborhood.

College-bound high school graduates who decide to enroll at a public university in their home state should make every effort to get admitted to their state's flagship public university.  By and large, the flagships are seeing an uptick in their enrollments and can offer broader course offerings and student services than the regionals.

A few regional public institutions are thriving and maintaining their enrollment levels. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where I taught until I retired, is poised to remain viable even if the economic downturn persists. ULL has a nursing school, engineering programs, and computer-science offerings that make its degrees attractive in Louisiana's job market.

But in Louisiana and in most states, the small, marginal public colleges that were often their community's largest employer will be shutting down. For most students, it will not make sense to attend a regional school that may disappear before they pay off their student loans.


  1. Do you think, though, that public universities stand a better chance at remaining open v. expensive private colleges? The student loan crisis is becoming apparent to many students and parents. Now faced with lost wages, jobs and opportunity, I think many families will look to regional state schools. Most people understand that it doesn't really matter where you go to college, as long as you get a degree that makes you employable once you graduate (engineering, business, health/nursing, accounting, etc). These degrees are attainable and affording at public flagship and regional schools. I worry more about the impact on the tier II and tier III private schools - Trinity, Fairfield, Hofstra, Fordham, Syracuse, etc. - these schools are $60-$75k per year.

  2. You make some good points. I think the non-elite private schools--schools affiliated with religious denominations and small colleges in rural areas and small towns--will experience extreme pressure this fall. Enrollments are going to drop further, and schools with less than 1000 students will either close or merge.
    You may be right in your observation about the regional schools. The pandemic might make them more attractive because they are relatively inexpensive. But I think they will suffer too. Many states have seen significant enrollment declines on their regional and satellite campuses: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, etc.
    We should have a pretty clear picture of the pandemic's effect on higher education by the beginning of the fall semester. I don't think the picture will be pretty.