Editor's note: In this column, we look ahead at how the coronavirus pandemic could affect aspects of higher ed in the long term.
As the costs associated with the coronavirus pile up for colleges, it seems almost moot to point out that in certain areas, institutions are netting immediate savings.
After all, some colleges and systems forecast losses in the tens of millions of dollars. So halting aspects of campus operations — as well as large-scale events such as commencements and recruitment fairs — can save some cash. But their losses are big enough that a little savings here and there won't rescue their budgets.
Consider this example:
Most institutions have shuttered almost all their academic buildings and residence halls. At one large college, that move saved about $1 million in utilities expenses, Jim Hundrieser, vice president for consulting services at the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), told Education Dive.
However, that money was immediately directed to new coronavirus-related costs, Hundrieser said. Officials needed to drop half a million dollars on devices to equip certain administrative employees to work from home. The other half of the money was spent on shutting down campus laboratories, he said.
Over time, though, colleges may find that changes made because of the virus are netting them some savings, such as by reducing their physical footprint as more employees work remotely, said Kaitlyn Maloney, senior director of research at consulting firm EAB.
Suburban and urban colleges have historically not allowed certain employees, such as those who work in facilities management or IT, to be remote because they are so "student- and faculty-facing," Maloney said. Rural schools have sometimes allowed their IT professionals to work away from campus because those positions are harder to recruit for nearby, she said.
Colleges are figuring out that some of these services can be done outside of the campus, which provides them and their employees new flexibility.
Should telework continue past the pandemic, and colleges find they need less space, they could consider leasing out the first floor of a building to a fast food operation or a university-owned hotel to a third-party operator, Maloney said. These arrangements usually provide colleges quick cash immediately, a steady source of income over time, and let them retain ownership of the buildings, she said.
For now, however, the significant expenses from colleges' responses to the coronavirus outweigh any money they'd otherwise be making or saving. "The costs are just massive," Hundrieser said. "You might save some dollars here or there but it's never going to be enough."
Most colleges spend anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 on spring commencement, Hundrieser said. And for a single international recruitment trip, large schools could drop up to $50,000, he said. Restrictions on travel and large gatherings have caused schools to cancel them.
But the refunds colleges are likely to pay out on room and board costs alone are challenging a number of institutions' financial stability. The University of Maine System expects them to reach nearly $13 million, or about 2% of its budget.
The online shift
One area where cost savings or new income streams may be found is from institutions reworking how they offer certain services and instruction virtually.
College counseling centers, for instance, are notoriously overbooked, a situation professionals have largely viewed as an indication the stigma around accessing such care is lessening.
Before the pandemic hit, institutions had begun using mobile applications to augment in-person treatment. Moving students off-campus accelerated those efforts, though at a cost to add or expand teletherapy services.
Leaning into these practices could help institutions become more efficient, Hundrieser said. Online counseling could reduce the burden on professionals and even save on office space if counselors can conduct sessions remotely.
"There's going to be a cohort that wants face-to-face structure and support," Hundrieser said. "But for other students, they don't care if it's online, and they're happy to do it."
The same goes for online instruction. Though some students are dissatisfied with the quality of remote education resulting from the quick move online, many have grown up with the internet and are fine not going into a classroom every day, said Phil Hill, an ed tech consultant with firm MindWires.
Over the next year, online learning will provide flexibility in light of the risk of recurring outbreaks and the need for social distancing until a coronavirus vaccine is developed, Hill said. For some large schools, the infrastructure they expanded now may allow them to enroll more online students in the years ahead, some of whom may not be interested in the residential campus experience, he said.
Evidence suggests an increasing number of traditional college-age students are pursuing fully online education over campus-based four-year colleges.
"In the long run it can be more efficient," Hill said. "You reduce your physical plant needs, and there's a bigger opportunity to support more of students' needs."
Robert Lue, the faculty director of Harvard University's Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, envisions another way institutions can benefit long term from the new digital infrastructure they've created.
Colleges can develop robust digital course materials and package them for online courses down the road, Lue said, perhaps in partnership with publishers. Institutions could charge a subscription fee for the resulting content, though he would prefer it was free.
Likening the system to the explosion of MOOCs, he said new digital content could give new flexibility to students and could even incorporate online labs, which have proved challenging to translate to an online format. Colleges could also use it to diversify their offerings through blended degree programs, which would be made more robust by having this digital database.
"It would be less about revenue generating, and more about bending the cost curve for everyone," Lue said.
For now, EAB's Maloney said, colleges aren't looking at building out online infrastructure to generate revenue but rather to accommodate their students. Eventually, they'll benefit from the flexibility it gives them -- more instructors being able to teach online and to do so quickly in case of another crisis, she said.
But not right now.
"Most haven't gotten to look at it as an opportunity yet," Maloney said.