Friday, April 28, 2023

The Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the world of higher education. In the United States, more than three dozen colleges and universities have closed or merged since the start of the pandemic, according to a new study from Higher Ed Dive. Among them are eighteen Christian institutions, including Methodist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Church of Christ, and Independent Christian Church schools.

For many of these institutions, COVID-19 was the last in a series of devastating blows. They were already struggling with declining enrollment, demographic shifts, internal conflict, and unrelenting financial challenges. Some would likely have closed even without the pandemic, but for others, the crisis was the final straw that pushed them over the edge.

Most of the schools that have closed in recent years were small, some very small. Many people on those campuses appreciated the size and intimacy it created for their communities, but it also made them vulnerable to any enrollment decline. For example, MacMurray College, a Methodist-affiliated school in Illinois, had just 552 students in its final year of operation. Its enrollment numbers had dropped from around 630 in the 2010s, putting the school's finances in a perilous position.

"You have to have a clear long-term strategy," said David Fitz, a former MacMurray political science professor who took a position in the administration in the early 2000s. "I'm not sure the college ever did that well. We moved from crisis to crisis and managed well, until we couldn't and then it had to close."

Other schools, such as Finlandia University in Michigan and Presentation College in South Dakota, had made painful efforts to try to turn things around, such as sharply discounting tuition to increase enrollment and cutting spending. For a few hopeful moments, things seemed to be looking up. However, the COVID-19 crisis was too much, and these schools ultimately had to close their doors.

For some institutions, though, COVID-19 seemed like it could be a blessing in disguise, an odd but very welcome answer to prayer. Across the country, higher education institutions received about $40 billion from the federal government. Many also received additional money from state and local governments.

For example, Concordia College Alabama, a historically black Lutheran school, was on the brink of closure before the pandemic hit. The school's enrollment had dropped from a high of 759 in 2007 to just 387 in 2019. However, the college was able to receive more than $4 million in federal funds through the CARES Act, allowing it to stay afloat for a little longer. The college was also able to receive a $2.4 million loan from the United Negro College Fund.

Other schools, such as Louisiana College and Huntington University, were able to use federal funds to make significant investments in technology and online learning, allowing them to continue educating their students even during the pandemic.

However, not all institutions were able to benefit from the influx of government funds. Many smaller colleges and universities did not receive enough aid to offset the financial damage caused by the pandemic. This was especially true for schools that were already in a precarious financial position before the crisis.

The closure of these institutions has had a profound impact on their students and communities. For many students, these schools represented a sense of home and belonging that they may struggle to find elsewhere. In some cases, students had to transfer to other schools or put their education on hold entirely.

The closure of Christian institutions is especially significant, as these schools have played a vital role in shaping the faith and values of countless students over the years. Many of these schools had a mission of integrating faith and learning, helping students to develop a deeper understanding of their relationship with God and their role in the world.

The closure of these schools is a loss that will be felt for years to come. It is not just the loss of physical buildings or academic programs, but the loss of a community and a shared sense of purpose. It is a loss of the unique perspective and values that these schools brought to higher education.

The pandemic has forced higher education institutions to confront long-standing challenges and adapt to new realities. Some have been able to weather the storm and emerge stronger, while others have had to close their doors. The closure of these institutions serves as a reminder of the importance of thoughtful planning and strategic decision-making in higher education.

Moving forward, higher education institutions must continue to adapt and innovate to meet the changing needs of students and society. This includes investing in technology and online learning, expanding access and affordability, and prioritizing student success and well-being.

In the face of these challenges, Christian higher education institutions have an opportunity to lean into their unique mission and values. They can continue to provide a holistic education that integrates faith and learning, preparing students to make a positive impact in their communities and the world.

Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted both the resilience and vulnerability of higher education institutions. It has shown the importance of careful planning, innovative thinking, and a commitment to the well-being of students and communities. As the world continues to change, higher education must continue to adapt and evolve to meet the needs of future generations of students.

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