To say things are hard right now is an understatement. Amidst a global pandemic, we’re all struggling to adjust. To protect our health. To working offsite. To teaching online. To parenting while working at home. To schooling children and caregiving for others amidst all of that, too.
But higher ed, too, is uncertain. Things are about to get bad. Very, very bad, I think. Worse than the great recession.
Moody’s has downgraded the higher ed sector to a “negative” outlook for 2020. At the most severe end of the spectrum, analysts are predicting a 30% drop in enrollment. International students will fall off in droves as this goes on, and uncertainty over travel bans continue. Out of state students may well opt to stay put closer to home after being sent off campus for the duration of this semester. And, of course, even in-state students whose families have become unemployed will no longer be able to afford school.
In many recessions, higher ed enrollment goes up, as people scrape together ideas on re-skilling and re-credentialing for new opportunities. And there’s need based aid. Both true. But this time, it’s different. Admissions officers are warning of a huge drop in enrollment. This is a new and never-before-seen level of volatility.
Colleges have had to scrape together emergency funds for N-95 masks, tons more cleaning and sanitization, buy thousands more licenses to eLearning software, and hire additional medical personnel. None of which was budgeted for. So they have to dip into reserves to provide laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to students in need, HIPAA-compliant Zoom channels for counseling, additional security expenses to release otherwise-locked down external network access to data so that offsite researchers and employees can access it…higher ed is hemorrhaging money.
And that hemorrhaging of money is already hurting higher ed. Now. This year. Right this second. What it will do in the near future has yet to be seen, as higher ed tries to overcome the crisis we’re faced with today.
Public higher ed has been funding-starved for years, thanks to austerity measures, so it will face greater challenges in climbing out of a money hole. So far, I haven’t seen any bailout proposals that address the scale of what’s to come. But even private higher ed is hurting. Maybe not to the same degree, but endowments dropped 20-30% as the market dropped.
And, as families lose their incomes, they are going to be increasingly resistant to tuition increases to offset any losses. Right now, before the brunt of it has set in, parents are demanding refunds on housing, tuition & fees, graduation ceremony costs, dining, parking, and who knows what else because their children were suddenly sent home.
I’m worried I’m going to lose my job. I do organizational development, running professional development programs. Professional development is non-essential. Especially because my professional development programs are aimed at staff (not students or faculty, and so not directly tied to the educational mission of my employer). From an organizational development standpoint, training arms of organizations are among the first cut whenever orgs cut back, because it is optional, especially in times of crisis, and orgs can just bring training back from external consultants or hire trainers back once things stabilize.
It wouldn’t be the first time I get laid off. And I suppose this is one of the inherent risks of working in higher ed. I work in the higher ed because it supports people’s educational development. But since I’m not directly tied to the teaching & learning functions of students…my job can be framed as non-essential.
Since it’s out of my control, I just continue to do my work and wait, (and stress eat!) watching as market volatility continues and lists of hiring freezes and layoffs start to pour in. Among the organizations that have announced layoffs so far, I’ve seen community colleges, private elite R1s, SLACs, public R2s, and everything in between. I believe my time is coming.