COVID cuts deepen: higher education starts confronting fall 2020 realities

How will higher education be transformed by COVID-19?  How much damage will there be?

Back in March I forecasted fierce financial pressures to come as a result of the pandemic.  Others issued similar analyses.  Since then I’ve been tracking how colleges and universities have responded, including, for example, a snapshot of cuts in just part of May.

That was during the previous fiscal year, 2019-2020.  Now we’re in the new fiscal of 2020-2021 and staring at a fall term as it barrels towards us.  New cuts are starting up and they are biting more deeply than earlier ones.

Here is a sample from July:

  • The University of Akron cut “178 positions, including 96 members of the union faculty and nonunion faculty, contract employees and staff.”
  • Tarleton State University is committed to “30 layoffs and reassignments,” plus cutting one academic program.
  • Roanoke College is cutting $6 million from its budget, which means axing 14 jobs.
  • The University of Iowa is cutting $15 million and 15 instructors – and that’s just the first phase of three, because of “UI’s $70 million financial loss due to COVID-19 and an $8 million cut in state appropriations to state Board of Regents institutions.”
  • Canisius College decided to “lay off 96 employees, including 25 professors,” thanks to “a projected $20 million shortfall in a $75 million budget.”
  • Carthage College announced it would “reassess… our academic programs” – in other words, to “eliminate up to 20% of faculty and restructure 10 academic departments.”
  • The state of Nevada has a new budget, which includes (among other things) serious cuts to that state’s public universities, colleges, and institutes.  They range from 19.66 to 25.87%.
  • The University of North Carolina system’s leader asked each campus chancellor to prepare plans cutting to “their budgets by between 25% and 50%.”
  • The University of Missouri rolled out 3,598 furloughs and compensation cuts to 2,317 staff – after laying off 173 staff.
  • The University of Texas at San Antonio ended 312 jobs, among them “one-tenth of the university’s non-tenured faculty, ranging across all academic departments.”
  • Oberlin College decided it would no longer employ its unionized dining staff, firing them and outsourcing instead.
  • Stephens College axed 30 employees.
  • Maryland dealt its public institutions a roughly $200 million budget cut.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed is trying to keep track of as much of this human damage as possible.  They have numbered “at least 51,793 employees in academe… known to have been affected by… a layoff, a furlough, or a contract nonrenewal resulting from Covid-19.”  (emphasis in original) And yet: “because a specific or approximate count of leaves of absence, terminations, workplace reductions, or contract nonrenewals is not known for every action, the sum represents a significant undercount.”  And it looks like they haven’t updated since July 2.

All of these cuts are taking place in a context of general economic havoc.  For months there have been staggering numbers of unemployed people, perhaps 11% at present. Millions have retained their jobs, but taken pay cuts. (Thanks to Creative Marbles for the link) In addition, “49.1% of American adults live in households which have experienced a loss in employment income,” according to the US Census.  The entire economy sagged beneath a huge second quarter production collapse:


GDP US 2016-2020_BEA

As I’ve said elsewhere, This Can’t Be Good For Higher Ed.  State governments have lost revenue and seen their expenses rise – and we know public higher ed is an easy thing to cut, nationwide, in red states and blue.  If half of American families have lost money in this crisis, they might not be of a mind to spend as much on college as they once were.  And so on.

All of these cuts can lead one to see all of American higher ed as doomed.  There are columnists and professors who make this argument.  But that view is wrong on multiple levels, starting with the most basic.  This nation’s post-secondary ecosystem contains roughly 4,400 colleges and universities.  In today’s post I only addressed a sliver of them.  Yes, others are making cuts, but some are not.  For example, Bowdoin College is going to spend roughly $1 million on new devices for students.  Here’s my Twitter thread on that story, if you’re curious on that point:

Other liberal arts colleges and universities are investing in extensive pandemic countermeasures without laying off people.

Some institutions are protected by their reputations.  A few others benefit from not only having a serious endowment, but the political decision to use it.  Others are enrolling students in programs that look very positive right now: everything health care related, for instance.  Some that have suffered from being in rural locations might enjoy an enrollment uptick as people prefer the relative isolation.

The picture is complex, just like American higher ed.  These cuts are not uniform.  They range from not rehiring adjuncts to kicking out unionized dining staff to booting tenured faculty.  Some cut programs, while others do not.  Some might be one-offs while others are part of a series of reductions.

But I want to make sure we note, recognize, reflect on, and feel the human toll being exacted as colleges and universities grapple with COVID-19 in this new fiscal year. I especially want to record cases far from the elite.

In my work over the past decade I’ve warned about multiple stresses squeezing American higher education.  The pandemic accelerates some of them.  The campuses mentioned in this blog post have been coping with those trends to various degrees.  They met the virus to varying degrees of fragility.

Looking ahead, I hope I don’t have to do too many more of these posts, yet am prepared for the possibility.

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9 Responses to COVID cuts deepen: higher education starts confronting fall 2020 realities

  1. In my biased opinion, what Bryan has documented here is not the demise of higher education but the fragmentation of it. One of the signals to this effect is offered by the American Student Assistance webinar series, “Innovation in Career Exploration: Turning Passions Into Pathways,” the latest being “College as a Default? Accepting That College is No Longer a Panacea for Today’s Students”. Thematically, this webinar describes a landscape where there has never been more ways to learn than ever before; students don’t need to go to college [in the way that we understand this to mean] to succeed in the marketplace; learning and credentialed PD can be sustained a la carte.

    As I have yakked about in prior posts, this pattern of fragmentation has happened before in video post-production some 20 years ago: The exclusive institutions of talent and the facilities that warehoused them were undercut by gains in the means of production at little or no cost (cheap Macs and third-party video boards), access to low-cost communication and publishing channels, construction of no-cost peer networks. The result was the total liquidation of centralized talent/tools and the exponential increase in post-production outside of those prior institutions. Thus, while all of this bloodshed was happening to the post-production industry, the rise of YouTube and Web-based streaming showed that more production was occurring than ever before. It just wasn’t happening in editing boutiques anymore.

    Taking this situation as precedent, I predict that, as colleges shed their staff, programs, and assets, there will be more learning happening than ever before in human history – it’s just won’t be happening in colleges.

    At some point (as was with the post-production industry), colleges will hit rock-bottom with a much smaller physical footprint and a larger virtual one; those that do not/cannot adapt will fail; the teaching and instructional design talent will disperse into a gig marketplace; a rarified few institutions will maintain the traditional college paradigm which only the wealthiest clients will enjoy.

    This is not necessarily a bad architecture for higher education! More access, lower costs, and more choices are all intrinsically good things for customers. But for those of us who rely on the traditional institutional structure of HE, this will mean we will lose the paternal security of institutional employment and the benefits thereof: health insurance, 403b, paid vacation days, etc. It has happened before to other industries. It can happen to us.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Fragmentation… degradation?

      I’m thinking of the new book A Perfect Mess.

      • I’d say the difference between those two terms is significant. While degradation implies an overall retraction (presence, affordance, investment, quality of experience, market share, etc.), fragmentation would be agnostic to these factors.

        For example, there could be a wider expanse of choices from different providers, all of which offering high quality product (fragmentation). Colleges can still offer very high product, but occupy less importance or share in the marketplace. I would not consider this to be “degradation” unless it is seen strictly from a narrow perspective (i.e. higher education marketing departments).

      • Glen S McGhee says:

        I am also thinking of David Labaree’s latest book. Instead it should be titled, A Perfect Storm.
        Frankly, Covid is leaving Labaree and apparently everyone else further and further behind.

  2. Michael Galvin says:

    I appreciate the summary, and the compassion with which it was delivered, Bryan.

  3. Glen S McGhee says:

    Thank you for the Bureau of Economic Analysis Excel — I cannot believe what my eyes are telling me — just look at that last column! NO ONE has ever had to face anything like this before!

  4. Keil Dumsch says:


    “All of these cuts can lead one to see all of American higher ed as doomed. There are columnists and professors who make this argument. But that view is wrong on multiple levels, starting with the most basic. This nation’s post-secondary ecosystem contains roughly 4,400 colleges and universities. In today’s post I only addressed a sliver of them. Yes, others are making cuts, but some are not. For example, Bowdoin College is going to spend roughly $1 million on new devices for students.”

    Yes, there are a lot of colleges (this is just the overcapacity problem that Glen and I keep pointing out) and many of them will still exist in some form. But I predict all of them will face budget cuts, job losses, and other economic impacts. Touting a well-off private college like Bowdoin spending $1 million on new devices is not a real indicator of long-term budget health.

    It’s still early in the virus-related fallout. The money just won’t be there for anything like the scope of higher ed we have now. Plus if colleges lose their credential monopoly (a real possibility) and employers start engaging in the type of on-the-job training they’ve long neglected, like this

    then higher ed is royally screwed. Colleges should getting people into lifeboats, not rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

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