The coronavirus pandemic is currently surging in many parts of the U.S. Just as cooler weather, the flu season and the holidays approach, COVID-19 is killing over 800 Americans per day, and case counts are reaching new peaks in some states. We have heard a good deal about the pandemic’s economic impact on businesses, especially in the hospitality and airline industries. Another consequence is its impact on higher education – an impact that threatens student health and the future of millions of students. Many of the responses of higher education administrators have sent chilling messages to students, parents, and prospective students.
Impact on Higher Education
The coronavirus is forcing colleges and universities – large and small, famous, and not-so-well-known – to dramatically cut academic programs, student services, and lay off employees. Even Harvard University with its massive endowment has not been immune to the belt tightening. Cost estimates run into the hundreds of billions of dollars of lost revenue or additional costs to colleges and universities across in the U.S. In the spring of 2020, when most Americans thought the coronavirus might be under control in a matter of weeks, colleges began softer cost-cutting measures such as offering early retirements and implementing hiring freezes. But given the persistence of the pandemic, those measure proved to be much too little. Across the country more drastic cost saving measures are taking place. These include laying off employees (even tenured faculty, an anathema in academia), delaying graduate admissions, eliminating entire departments and degree programs, and reducing student support services. In some cases, entire colleges are vanishing as they are consolidated into other institutions. Over 300,000 jobs in higher education have been lost according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Wave of Belt-Tightening
This wave of belt-tightening in 2020 comes in the midst of a longstanding relatively quiet recession in higher education. This financial crisis has been going on for years and has been brought on by reductions in State and Federal support for higher education, by decreasing enrollments, and by increasing student concerns about skyrocketing tuition and burdensome student debt. (Average student debt is now around $33,000 and much higher for graduate and professional students.) In response, many systems, like the University System of Georgia, were already closing and consolidating public colleges even before the coronavirus first arrived in the U.S. on January 20, 2020.
Student Health Needs More Attention
Too often in financial crises, businesses and institutions give too little attention to the wellbeing of stakeholders by their employees or in this case, students. The enduring coronavirus pandemic has only made a bad situation worse. Colleges’ costs for new safety measures have cost them millions. Students and parents have been reluctant to pay the same or nearly the same tuition for online classes. Freshmen enrollment is down 16% from 2019 as some students take a gap year or pursue other plans. Other students have sought out lower cost educational options.
Pandemic Affecting Social Change
Traditionally, higher education has been the linchpin for social mobility in the U.S. for lower income and poor students. But the pandemic is also affecting that avenue for social change. Some of these students seem to have given up on higher education, at least for now. This is reflected in an 8% reduction in awards of federal Pell Grants in 2020. These are educational funds given to deserving poor and lower income students to help them learn marketable skills and obtain undergraduate degrees or certifications.
What it Means for Student Health
It seems likely that the pandemic will be with us at least well into 2021, an almost unimaginable outcome in the spring of 2020 when quarantines and lockdowns began. As institutions of higher education continue their rounds of budget revisions and cuts, how will those decisions affect services that support the wellbeing of students? To what extent will decision makers take the wellbeing of vulnerable students into consideration? Will advocates of student health be included in the decisions? Will administrators make sure that their decisions sensitively recognize and address the mental health and wellbeing of their students? Will they recognize the enormous stress experienced by students – even in the best of times? Are they mindful that among traditional college age students that suicide is already the second leading cause of death, and that suicides almost invariably involve an untreated, poorly treated, or completely undetected emotional conditions?
Administrators Focus on Services to Support Student Health
I encourage administrators to revisit their Student Assistance Programs (SAP), campus counseling center services, and other services that support student health and wellbeing. In doing so, they should look for creative, proactive, cost-effective solutions to support, engage, and assist students in their wellbeing. Not doing so communicates another distressing message to students and parents.
About the Author
Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr. For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.
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