The Financial Impact of COVID-19 on US Colleges

Updated: Jun 9




Grant Calder has worked in College Consulting and Admissions Counseling for over 30 years and is Co-director of College Counseling at Friends' Central School in Philadelphia, where he also teaches American History and German. In the past, he has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University in Philadelphia, and the Middlesex and Choate boarding schools in New England. Additionally, he was a guest teacher at the Evangelisches Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster in Berlin, Germany. Grant has two children who are currently 12th graders and both "headed off" (whether actually or virtually) to college next Fall.


Recently, Grant agreed to have a series of Q&A webinars with us about everything that's going on in the U. S. landscape of colleges and universities, specifically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Here is the video recording, with full transcripts (edited for reading clarity) of the second of three webinars, hosted by Elizabeth Sawyer, CEO of Bennett International, streamed live on our Facebook page on Thursday, May 21st 2020.



By way of beginning the discussion, could you talk what the college landscape looked like before COVID-19?



Grant: Sure. I think that sometimes I forget that the college landscape looked pretty exciting (not necessarily in a good way) before COVID-19 arrived. It seemed as though there was going to be a struggle for various institutions who were maybe, in some ways, already struggling, trying to get a sense of whether or not their financial models were sustainable over the next two, three, five, or even ten years. And that was before the shut-down. A couple of consultants did a study using some graduate student labor in Boston, trying to get a handle on how many institutions were running financial systems that did not seem sustainable, and they came up with a very big number - a number so big that there was a quick and very energetic clamor on the part of some colleges to make sure that the study was not published [for obvious reasons]. So, there were already lots of bumps in the road with respect to higher education that people were concerned about before COVID-19. I can't imagine that the current situation will help in any way, and I think it will push a whole bunch of institutions either closer to or over “the edge”.


What was happening in the past primarily was, colleges were doing a lot of discounting - reporting that they were charging a certain amount, but in fact were not bringing in those amounts (from tuition, room and board and such) from most of their students. The national discount rate within the last couple of years had actually surpassed 50% - meaning that overall, colleges were making less than 50% of what they reported they were charging students. With the exception of a handful of very wealthy colleges, many were spending a lot of time trying to figure out how they were going to keep things going in the long run, and they were seriously talking about cutting programs in various areas.


There has, sadly, been a big drop in the number of students majoring in Humanities and Social Sciences in the last ten years. It's really been precipitous. The number of History majors has dropped more than 30% in last ten years. So, there are colleges that were considering cutting departments that just didn't have enough students in them to justify the staffing. There were lots of challenges, and they've only been increased by the current situation.


On the other hand, these crises always create opportunities – so it's important to think about that side of it too.


What are some important ways in which the pandemic has had an impact on US colleges and universities?



Grant: Well, it's funny - when you when I had a discussion about this a few weeks ago and I was then discussing "five big ways in which colleges are financially impacted by the pandemic." I was way off. Since then, my list has become twenty-five ways long, and growing. Every morning, I wake up and look at my various news sources and I say "oh, that's another way I didn't even think of in which colleges are going to be hit financially."


The obvious ways are that colleges aren't sure how many of their kids are coming back in the Fall - partly because they're not sure what kind of programs they can even offer. They're not sure how able families are going to be to pay for tuition, room, and board. They're not sure what their endowments are going to look like. They know already that they're going to take huge losses in Summer programs, which are a very important part of the bottom line in budgeting for colleges.


I think one of the first ways colleges felt the hit was, they had kids abroad in international study programs, and suddenly, they had to bring them all home. So they had to buy plane tickets just overnight, at whatever going flight rates were. Then, they had to refund vendors and all other people involved in these international study programs. So, money just started pouring out of these colleges almost immediately as it began to become clear that countries were going to shut down.


They had to cancel lots of Spring and Summer events, which are big fundraisers for these institutions - athletic events, and such. I work at an independent school, Friends' Central School, and we operate exactly like a small private college. Just to give you an idea, we depend on our Summer programs to pay for the health insurance premiums for the entire faculty. Colleges run Summer programs for exactly that reason - because those programs account for such a large potential piece of their budget.


Imagine the cleaning costs the colleges have taken on to account for the pandemic. They've had to spend money on online teaching resources for the Spring semester because people needed new software, new computers, and the tools necessary to allow them to work from home. Colleges are having to consider spending to retrofit their campuses - having hands-free faucets, or changing door-knobs so that they can be operated hands-free. Every time we turn around, we realize that there's another potential expense. At Friends' Central, we're going to offer some of our more "academic" Summer programs to our students without charging families, because we're trying to show them that there is value in what we're offering - colleges are going to feel pressure do the same thing. They want kids to come back, just like we do.

I know we're asking you to look into a crystal ball here – what do you think this means for the whole world of financial aid?



Grant: That's a big question... there are a couple of things that I think are really important to mention. Most of our current group of seniors already have their financial aid packages -colleges have committed to financial aid for them. But colleges are now also very interested in talking to parents and students about what their current situations are, and whether changes need to be made. That's an important thing to keep in mind - it's completely reasonable and a good idea to get in touch with a financial aid office about your package if you think that there is additional information now that you could provide that would make a difference. If you just got a package that isn't going to work for you and you have a student who is really excited about attending an institution, you simply want to say to them, "look, this is where my son/daughter wants to go. Do you have any room to make adjustments now? These are his/her other options, and these are the other packages we've received." Colleges want to know when they're losing kids, to whom, and for how much.


My kids are both seniors - in one case, and it ended up being the case for the institution my son's going to attend - when the financial aid package came in initially, it was $10,000+ higher than I was willing to pay, and so I went back to the financial aid office and said, "is it possible that could take another look? This is my son's first choice, these are the other places he's considering, these are the other packages he's received." They got back to me the next day and matched one of his other options. They didn't do it as a special favor - they did it because they said, "here's a kid wants to come, we've already admitted him, we have a choice to make - are we willing to stretch to bring him in and potentially give him a choice to be here or not?" So, you can't demand anything, but colleges are often eager to make adjustments if they can.


Elizabeth: The point that you've just made - about having a dialogue with your school of choice about their financial aid options - I think that's probably something that could be really helpful to parents who are listening. Could just speak for one more minute on what the limits of that conversation are? It's okay to reveal financial aid packages that other schools have offered you?


Grant: Absolutely. As I said, colleges want to know if they're losing kids, to what other institution, and for how much. That's important information for them. I've counseled students and parents to do this for 30 years, and now I'm doing it for my own kids. Talk to the financial aid office tell them what your situation is. I would say, be completely forthcoming with them. The more sense they have that they are getting the full picture from you, the better the odds are that they will be able to make some adjustments. There's no guarantee, you can't make any demands - you should just present them with your situation. It works best to say, "this is the institution my son/daughter really wants to attend, and as things stand, it's going to be our most expensive option right now - is there anything that you can do?"


With respect to school next Fall, it looks at this point like about two-thirds of colleges and universities in the US are saying they're going to open. It's hard to know exactly what kind of shape that will take. Some of them are now saying (including the one my son's going to attend) that they will actually open a week or two earlier in August, and there seems to be a movement towards considering this - a slightly earlier, "squeezed" 1st semester, from earlier in August through to Thanksgiving with no Fall break, and students wouldn't come back until February. So the kids would be home during what we usually think of "flu season". Both of my kids are planning on attending whatever is offered up, and virtually all of my coworkers have the same plan.


For most kids, if they can, it makes sense to get started. If they're leaving high school, they probably don't really have many other plans anyway, and if they don't do classwork, they're probably going to end up with fewer opportunities. Colleges are going to work very, very hard to keep kids occupied. I think it makes sense while selecting courses right now to lean towards some of the more basic, general education classes that would be more likely to be lecture-based classes at that institution.

Do you think that schools will still be able to be “need-blind”, for example? Or, only offer need-based aid rather than merit-based aid? What are your predictions?



Grant: There’s just so much to be covered there, and I’ll try to keep it contained. In terms of financial aid and planning - if you have 11th-grade kids, it sounds late to say this, but of course the most important rule is essentially just to save money from the time they are infants. The idea that you get more financial aid if you have fewer resources is not really the case for the vast majority of students. The more you can bring to the table, generally speaking, the better the chances are that the college can fill in the rest.

There's a small group of schools that do what's called "meet-full-need". A few of them might not continue to do that now, though I think that most of them who have made that commitment will follow through. What "meet-full-need" means is, they calculate what your family's capacity to pay is, and then they say, "we think you can pay this amount of the total," and if you agree, then they commit to filling in the rest. It's a "bottom-up" model.


Most institutions don't have that those kinds of natural resources, so they start at the top. They say, "this is what we cost, we're going to give you a certain amount of financial aid, and we're going to give you a certain amount of additional merit discount." And then families decide what they want to do about that gap - perhaps borrow money to fill it, or just decide "this institution is too expensive for us." These institutions will also tend to provide extra discounts to kids they're really trying to attract. I think all of that will continue to function more or less as it has for the near future.


The COVID-19 crisis may, however, encourage longer-term shifts in how colleges price themselves, and how the whole financial aid system looks.

Will college tuition costs increase?



Grant: My sense is that most places would like to try to hold the line, because they know that suggesting that parents and students should pay more when what's being offered isn't even necessarily going to be the standard program is not going to go over well.


Some larger schools have made a commitment to hold their tuition rates. I think Penn State, for example, has committed to not raising its tuition fees through the 2021/2022 school year. There is definitely that pressure on schools - I think that the majority of schools will either keep tuition increases to a bare minimum or will freeze their costs.


If colleges continue online in the Fall, do you think that they'll offer discounts because of a diminished educational experience?


Grant: I think they will, certainly. Firstly, if students are home, they can't charge for room & board. This is a big deal for colleges too - sure, if the kids aren't in dining halls, schools don't have pay for the food to feed them, but even while kids aren't living in the dorms, colleges do still have to pay to maintain those buildings. A lot of colleges make money by housing kids because they own those buildings. That's a loss to it they would rather not take, but ultimately they simply can't charge kids for room & board if they're not there.


Tuition is going to be a very contentious point. There are people who have already sued to be reimbursed for tuition, and I don't think colleges will win those cases, although I think it's unfair to expect colleges to reimburse families for part of the second semester when those schools had already committed themselves financially. But, next Fall could be a different case - I think that a lot of colleges will have to make cuts. At my school, some of us are talking about salary cuts, partly as a way of making it clear that we're committed to making a sacrifice here too. If we expect parents to keep paying tuition, I think it's very hard for us or for colleges to reset those costs when we switched to some kind of online or hybrid model. But there will be pressure obviously on institutions to do that.


Elizabeth: Right, we've actually seen that in the international school world here at Bennett, where some schools have been faced by that request from our corporate clients.

A couple of questions here about merit aid. Many colleges post charts with requirement stats needed for certain levels of merit aid. How late in the year do you think that colleges could alter those because of their own financial losses? If schools base a lot of their merit-aid on test scores and testing isn't happening, how will that work?

Grant: There's a funny overlapping issue here. As I said, kids have been admitted and have accepted offers from schools - financial aid packages are already in place. Now, that doesn't mean that someone can't renegotiate, as I did for my son, but in my experience, it's unlikely that if you go back to a college that has given you a merit-based financial aid package, that they're going to make any changes. The changes that do happen are almost always on the need-based side of financial aid.


When it comes to current 11th-graders going through the cycle, I think colleges that award merit aid will continue to do so, and will just rely more on GPAs, class ranks, and particular course grades if they don't have scores work with. They can still make assessments - a student may get merit aid because they have a combination of a good academic record and is interested in theater, for example. Merit aid goes to kids as a way to encourage them to matriculate, so it goes to kids the colleges want, and they'll continue to figure out ways to offer it.


I wouldn't worry about the testing. Kids are all really all in the same boat with respect to testing, and the colleges are in the same boat too. They're gonna be looking a lot of kids that have less testing results than usual. On top of that, many schools are going to be test-optional, in addition to the hundreds that already were. Just as a reminder from our last session, when schools say their test-optional, they really mean it - they don't penalize kids for not submitting scores.

What does all of this mean for international students? Obviously, most are currently grounded and unable to return to colleges physically, even if they can re-enroll online. Do international students constitute a financial influx for colleges?



Grant: International students are a big piece of the picture. Last year there were about one million international students studying in the US. The vast majority of them were paying full tuition fees. I think the breakdown is about 300k undergraduate and 300-400k graduate students. So it's a big, big deal, especially at research universities. At UPenn, which is right down the road from my house, over 20% of its student body is international.


I think colleges and universities will do everything they can to keep international students connected to their institutions, and I say that because, as you point out, they may not be able to come back right away. Even if schools are doing in-person instruction in the Fall, they're going to set up online options for their international kids, so that those kids can stay with the curriculum, ideally until they can return physically for the second semester. Institutions will be doing everything they can to make sure that their international kids feel that wanted, and that there's a way for them to remain as a part of the institution, even if they have to do it from abroad for a while.


Some Harvard students have been petitioning to postpone the first semester next year. I mean, I understand that they're worried about equity and having substantial courses, but the wealthiest institutions in the US can, in a sense, do whatever they want, because a) they can afford to, and b) they have a product that people will pay for whether or not they're actually delivering anything like what they used to deliver. That's the reality. Most colleges universities are going to have to do better than that, and that's a good thing. That's an example of the positive side of this - there is market pressure, and that's good. Schools should all be working as hard as they can. At Friends' Central, we are working day and night to try to figure out how to get back to you in-person instruction. What we can do between now and then? Anything put on the table is a possibility we are considering to keep our families and students connected to the school, interested, and here for the long-term.





Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by guiding them towards making informed decisions and finding the best-fit schools for their children. Our consultants specialize in counseling families and helping them to find and secure placement for their children in preschools, private day schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, or schools with particular program offerings, such as special needs support.

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