The NCSL Blog


By Sunny Deye

The COVID-19 pandemic has left colleges across the country scrambling to plan for the fall of 2020.

Photo credit: Andrew Rush/Post-GazetteSchool tours came to a halt, admission decision deadlines were extended, and increasing evidence points to college-bound seniors changing their plans. Student retainment is also a concern, with at least a quarter of students reporting that they are either unlikely to return to school in the fall or believe it is “too soon to tell” if they will be able to reenroll.

Challenges for Student

  • Affordability.
    • Affordability is not just about college access; it is about college completion. How will the pandemic impact students’ ability to not just get to college, but to get through college and graduate with a credential of value? How will the forced move to online learning, lack of on-campus supports, and emerging economic challenges impact college access and completion?
  • Non-tuition costs
    • Today's student is not necessarily seeking a four-year baccalaureate degree. Nearly half of undergraduate students attend community colleges, and almost 40% of today’s higher education students are working adults. These students face additional challenges as they progress through their higher education pursuits, including transportation, childcare, food security, housing, and above all, affordability.
  • Transferability
    • Prior to the pandemic, nearly 4 in 10 college and university students transferred at least once. Those proportions are expected to rise because of disruptions caused by the coronavirus. When transferring schools, students lose, on average, more than 40% of the credits they’ve already earned and paid for—requiring them to retake courses and increasing the amount of time and money spent to get degrees. Some of the credits that are accepted don’t apply toward students’ majors.

Challenges for Institutions

  • Recruitment and admissions
    • Quick campus closures have greatly impacted recruitment for institutions for the 2020-2021 academic year. And, there is uncertainty about what this will look like in the fall–will schools and campuses reopen? Will the typical effect of a recession–more students enrolling–hold true in this unprecedented environment? If so, will it be many more students learning online? For many institutions reliant on tuition and fee income, the uncertainty about fall enrollments and fiscal stability is significant.
  • Impact on budgets
    • Many state higher education budgets were just recovering from the 2008 recession,  and some states were looking at significant expansions of funding for higher education. Others were exploring expansions of their Promise Programs from two- to four-years or looking at expanding or creating new Promise Programs for adults. For the most part, states that were looking to expand free college are now pulling back.
    • Beyond tuition and fees, and state support, institutions may also see a hit to their athletic programs. How will this affect overall higher ed budgets? Will there be additional impacts on programs or on scholarships?
    • Finally, many institutions rely significantly on international students and their tuition dollars–and these students may be unlikely to return for the foreseeable future.

Challenges for States

  • Higher education in a recession is more important than ever.
    • Short-term, high-quality credentials that get folks right back into jobs will be critical to state economic recovery.
    • Given the rapidly changing nature f work, it’s clear that a primary strategy fr economic development is going to be increasingly relevant, work-ready postsecondary credentials.
  • Students, families and policymakers need timely information about degrees and credentials.
    • States and postsecondary institutions have a responsibility to provide timely, useful information about degree options and pathways that prepare students for jobs needed in their communities.
    • States can make this information more transparent and readily available–for example, Kentucky HB 419 requires that data be compiled each year on in-demand jobs in the state and made available to prospective students.

Throughout these sweeping changes in the higher education landscape, NCSL’s postsecondary education team will continue to monitor COVID-19 developments and bring relevant, timely information to state legislators and legislative staff throughout the year.

NCSL Virtual Meeting Series: Addressing the COVID-19 Pandemic

The NCSL Postsecondary Education Team is launching a series of six in-depth meetings on state higher education impacts related to COVID-19. Meeting topics include: How the Pandemic is Exacerbating Inequities in Higher Ed (and What States Can Do About It); The Role of Community Colleges During and After the Pandemic; Work-Ready Credentials as a Strategy to Help State Economies Bounce Back; Strengthening Student Protections in a Time of Increased College Closures; Solutions to the Student Debt Crisis in a Time of Economic Distress; and Student Financial Wellness–State Policy to Support Today’s Students.

NCSL Postsecondary Education Resources 

Sunny Deye is the program director for postsecondary education in NCSL’s Education Program.

Email Sunny

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.