The “Long Covid” of American Higher Education

by Laura Adler

There is so much unknown about Covid-19, and among the most perplexing features is “long Covid”—the set of symptoms that haunt some people who contract Covid-19 for weeks and months after the lifespan of the virus. As Covid-19 vaccines are disseminated and the United States emerges from lockdowns, universities are facing their own set of long-lasting symptoms. Even after students, faculty, and staff return to campus and the logistical burdens of testing and remote learning lift, universities will have to grapple with the long-term consequences of a relatively short-term crisis—a crisis that laid bare older and more slow-moving challenges to the system of higher education. The challenges they face include the growing cost of a degree that is less and less likely to guarantee job security; economic, gender, and racial inequalities within and beyond the campus community; and the replacement of tenure-track jobs with contingent employment for teaching faculty. The ability to address these challenges is also likely to be stratified, with disadvantaged schools struggling to stay afloat while elite universities use their deep pockets to invest for the future.

Before Covid, an Ongoing Crisis

Covid-19 struck a system of higher education that was already in crisis. Enrollment was down (The Chronicle of Higher Education 2019). The student debt crisis was an undeniable fact: Americans owed over $1.7 trillion in student loans, more than double the amount owed ten years earlier (Federal Reserve 2021). Meanwhile, the value of what students received in exchange for taking on this debt had not kept pace: the college wage premium, which grew rapidly in the 1980s, flattened in the 1990s and barely budged in the 2000s (Valletta 2018). In fact, wages for college graduates in the bottom 60 percent of the income distribution had been falling since 2000 (Gould 2019).

The flattening of the college wage premium overall masked stratification. Students who attended more selective universities were seeing substantially higher earnings than those who attended less selective schools (Black and Smith 2006; Brewer, Eide, and Ehrenberg 1996; Chen, Grove, and Hussey 2012; Long 2008). Students from economically disadvantaged or racially underrepresented backgrounds saw the largest returns from elite schooling (Chetty et al. 2017; Dale and Krueger 2011). But these groups were also the least likely to attend selective schools in the first place (Davies and Guppy 1997; Gerber and Cheung 2008). The push for more Americans to attend college—premised on the idea that education would yield returns in the form of higher wages—thus seemed to have backfired. Americans were more highly educated and more in debt, but many were not seeing the payoff for their investment in human capital.

Cumulatively, these dynamics had generated a barely-concealed crisis by 2020. The cost of college had risen dramatically and the benefits were becoming more unequal. Commentators attributed an “emerging Millennial wealth gap” to these educational dynamics (Cramer, Addo, and Campbell 2019) and politicians called for more accountability in the form of a “college scorecard” that documented graduate outcomes across American universities (Stratford 2015). But substantial change was not forthcoming.

Enter Covid-19

The impacts of the virus on universities were both deep and broad. All at once, universities had to reckon with the costly transition to online learning, the expense of on-campus testing, and shrinking revenues—forcing difficult decisions. The Chronicle of Higher Education estimated a 14 percent decline in revenue, or a loss of $85 billion (Friga 2021). When compounded by expenses related to Covid-19 of roughly $24 billion and expected cuts to public funding of $74 billion, they estimated an overall negative impact on higher education of $183 billion (Friga 2021). But these costs are not equally distributed—instead, they compound existing inequalities among schools, among university workers, and among students.

All universities were impacted. In the fall semester alone, surveys of universities found substantial losses in tuition (with a median loss of $4.2 million), housing ($11.5 million), and auxiliary revenue ($10 million) from programs like athletics and rentals (Whitford 2021). At the same time, Covid necessitated additional expenditure for testing ($2.6 million) and social distancing measures ($1.4 million), as well as median costs of nearly half a million dollars each for face masks and contact tracing (Whitford 2021). But the impact on universities was not uniform. The divergence between dwindling revenue streams, on the one hand, and the growing value of endowments, on the other, deepened existing inequality between the most elite institutions and the rest. Although endowment returns were low in 2020 relative to recent years, at 1.8 percent, that growth still meant a 10 year rate of return of 7.5 percent (Whitford 2021). The continued growth of endowments meant that wealthier universities had more bandwidth to cover short-term impacts of Covid-19 (Hamlin 2021). 

The impact of Covid-19 on universities was passed on to university workers, as spending reductions often involved staffing cutbacks. The workforce overall dropped by an estimated 350,000 during the pandemic, between layoffs, furloughs, and voluntary early retirement—the last of these sometimes prompted by “austerity measures” that made staying increasingly unappealing for long-time employees (Bauman 2020). Again, the pandemic exacerbated inequalities. Although tenured faculty saw a rare pay cut (Douglas 2020), adjunct faculty were especially vulnerable to universities’ efforts to cut costs (Flaherty 2020). And, as in other areas of the economy, women faculty bore the majority of the vastly expanded care duties associated with stay-at-home orders, leading to reinvigorated gender gaps in publishing and other measures of productivity (Skinner, Betancourt, and Wolff-Eisenberg 2021).

What did these changes mean for students? Like students of all ages, university students were severely impacted by Covid-19 in terms of social isolation, disengagement, and declining quality of learning in remote classrooms. A survey of 33,000 college students in the fall semester of 2020 found that half showed symptoms of anxiety or depression, two-thirds reported struggling with feelings of isolation, and more than 80 percent said their mental health had negatively impacted their recent school performance (Eisenberg et al. 2020). Most research on Covid-related learning loss is focused on younger students, with less known about the precise impact on educational outcomes for college students. But the effects that have been measured in elementary and high schools are dire, with some studies finding an equivalent of no learning for the duration of remote education (Engzell, Frey, and Verhagen 2021). And Covid has negatively impacted students’ ability to translate education into work opportunities, with the disappearance of internships and summer jobs. Once again, the distribution of impacts was unequal—for instance, students from lower-income backgrounds were more than 50 percent more likely to delay graduation than their higher-income peers (Aucejo et al. 2020).

Cancelled SATs and Black Lives Matter Reshape Admissions

In addition to negative effects on university revenues and the quality of the college experience, 2020 brought less predictable impacts, including in the admissions process. Two factors had particularly dramatic effects on the landscape of college applications: the cancellation of standardized testing and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Already in August 2020, admissions officers across the US knew that the year ahead would present unprecedented challenges. With SAT and ACT testing canceled and some high schools shifting to pass/fail grading, admissions officers would have fewer quantitative measurements to use as they sorted through tens of thousands of applications. In a segment for National Public Radio, admissions officers called it a “revolution,” described the need to “hit the reset button hard,” or reported that their teams were “looking a little green at the prospect of what’s before them” (Smith 2020). And the pandemic year delivered. Applications surged at top schools, ranging from a 16 percent increase at the University of California to a 31 percent increase at Cornell. But applications also plummeted elsewhere, including a dramatic drop in the State University of New York system (Jaschik 2021b).

These changing application dynamics are likely to have a profound effect on campus diversity, but the impact is bimodal. Highly selective schools saw dramatic increases in applications from first generation students (up 20 percent) as well as students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups (up 24 percent), while less selective institutions saw small declines in the number of students from these groups (O’Malley and Bohanon 2021). Some observers have noted that the schools that served the most disadvantaged students, like California’s State University system, have seen some of the most troubling declines in enrollment (Jaschik 2021a). Although there is little analysis of the precise causes of the decline, a 12 percent drop in enrollment at California’s community colleges is attributed to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic of underrepresented student populations, including older students who might lack childcare options and students from poor households who might not have access to reliable internet (Burke and Freedberg 2021).

In the midst of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement also reshaped college applications. Most prominently, a surge of applications to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) indicated growing interest in these institutions among students. For instance, Morgan State received more than 50 percent more applications than it did in 2019, and the rate of students who indicated their intent to enroll was also up by more than half. Beyond HBCUs, universities’ attitudes toward activism also shifted. Signaling activism around racial issues was once likely to negatively impact your chances of receiving attention from admissions officers, but colleges have changed their attitude toward racial justice activism in ways that favor students who participate (Moody 2020). At some schools, BLM has even motivated admissions offices to firm up their commitments to diversity (Kaplan 2021).

Together, these shifts in demand are leading some universities to scramble to rapidly scale up, after cutting back during 2020. At the University of Vermont, Covid-19 prompted the university to plan cuts including twelve majors and four graduate programs, but a spike in enrollment has the administration rethinking the cuts and rapidly hiring additional staff (Ellis 2021). But while some schools quickly bounce back, others will be left to struggle during prolonged periods of economic distress.

Lasting Reverberations

The pandemic brought chaos to diverse areas of society. But as some activities drift back toward normalcy, others will see lasting impacts. In the context of declining revenues and shifting dynamics of demand, universities will have to reckon with how Covid-19 has disproportionately impacted populations that were already disadvantaged, including low-income students, adjunct faculty, and women.

Educators should be concerned, first, about the potential for a lost generation of students. High school and college students who were cast adrift during the pandemic may choose not to pursue higher education at all, feeling personally disengaged from education or demotivated by the declining value proposition. College enrollment in the fall of 2020 was down by nearly seven percent, but the vast majority of that decline was from students in disadvantaged contexts: the rate of decline in college enrollment from high-poverty high school schools was nearly four times as high as the decline in enrollment from low-poverty schools (National Student Clearinghouse 2021). And even for students who go on to attend college, the learning loss associated with the shift to online classrooms may be more acute for those with less adult help at home (Burke 2021), potentially setting low-income and first-generation students back in terms of their preparation for college courses.

The pandemic may also exacerbate existing inequalities between tenured and non-tenure track faculty and put adjuncts further at risk of career instability. During the pandemic, adjunct faculty were much more likely to lose their jobs, seeing a six percent decline in overall employment (Bichsel et al. 2021). Those who remained employed were less likely to receive adequate health protections in the classroom than their tenure-track colleagues (Stripling 2021). While the shift toward reliance on non-tenure track faculty has been underway for decades, the pandemic-induced recession provides an opportunity for universities to justify further austerity policies, including a reduction in tenure-track faculty and less favorable terms for adjuncts.

Researchers also anticipate a resurgence in gender inequality in faculty careers. Although caregiving responsibilities should return to normal with the reopening of schools and daycare centers, the relative productivity of women and men during the lockdowns will have long-term consequences. During the pandemic, women were more likely to be caregivers, and caregivers were less productive than non-caregivers (Calarco et al. 2020), but, in addition, women caregivers were more impacted than male caregivers (Skinner, Betancourt, and Wolff-Eisenberg 2021). This meant that women saw less time for data analysis, with impacts on medium-term publication opportunities and career advancement. In the longer term, women caregivers were significantly less likely to have time for grant-writing, meaning fewer resources to fund research going forward (Flaherty 2021). 

A Brighter Future? 

In higher education, Covid-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities—both between students and between schools—in ways that are not likely to dissipate quickly. The US system of higher education was already experiencing a crisis when the pandemic struck: the rising cost of education and the declining college wage premium, especially for students at less selective schools, were leading students and policymakers to question the value of a college education. Covid-19 brought these challenges to the surface and exacerbated existing inequalities. Schools with endowments had resources to cover the cost of the crisis, while those that relied on tuition navigated growing costs amid falling revenues. These dynamics have, in turn, differentially impacted employees and students, with the highest costs redounding to the least advantaged. We are thus seeing nested divergences: between students within their classes, between faculty within their schools, and between schools across the US.

While the pandemic has given colleges and universities much to be concerned about, 2020 also brought some changes that provide a foundation for long-term positive transformations. The rapid investment in new technologies has the potential to enable innovative teaching methods that can increase engagement in the classroom and expand access to university resources beyond university walls. Pandemic caregiving duties have precipitated renewed conversations around gender, work-family conflict, and what universities can do to support women faculty. And the unprecedented drive for diversity, equity, inclusion, and university accountability has the potential to create substantial and lasting changes in the composition of student and faculty populations. For the institutions that weather the storm, it could be that the pandemic makes them stronger.



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