Higher Education Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Andrew Smalley 3/22/2021


NCSL is monitoring the evolving situation related to the coronavirus and will continue to update this page as new information becomes available. 


The outbreak of the coronavirus has become a major disruption to colleges and universities across the country, with most institutions canceling in-person classes and moving to online-only instruction. The pandemic also threatens to significantly alter nearly every aspect of college life, from admissions and enrollment to collegiate athletics. These concerns extend to the financial future of higher education institutions in a time of considerable financial instability, both in the form of unexpected costs and potential reductions in revenue.

As the situation continues to develop, legislators are taking an active role in addressing both the immediate and long-term challenges related to the outbreak. As many colleges close on-campus housing and dining, legislators have introduced bills to ensure students receive refunds for room and board expenses. Other states are considering bills that would pause the collection of payments on state held student loans. Pending legislation also requires higher education institutions to develop and expand emergency preparedness and response plans. Legislators are also exploring strategies to address funding and appropriations for public colleges and universities.  

Challenges and Policy Issues 

Closures and Learning Disruption 

Campus Closures 

The spring semester of 2020 was significantly disrupted by the spread of the coronavirus as more than 1,300 colleges and universities in all 50 states canceled in-person classes or shifted to online-only instruction. By fall, many campuses developed plans to merge in-person instruction (with social distancing) and online learning, with varying degrees of success by institution. According to tracking from the College Crisis Initiative, 44% of institutions developed fully or primarily online instruction, 21% used a hybrid model and 27% offered fully or primarily in-person instruction. 

Many institutions are planning to expand in-person instruction and housing in spring 2021 with hopes that strategies including increased testing, contact tracing, and wastewater surveillance will help reduce campus outbreaks. Most schools are planning to cancel spring breaks or move to remote instruction after the break, which has prompted some concern about academic success and mental health. A recent survey found that nearly half of currently enrolled students said that it is likely or very likely that COVID-19 will negatively impact their ability to complete their degree or credential.

Online Instruction and Learning Disruptions 

The move to online-only classes for instruction prompted concerns about the quality of educational instruction provided remotely. Previous studies have warned that student performance, particularly for students who are already academically struggling, can seriously suffer in online courses. Other research has found that up to 20% of college students have issues accessing effective technology including working laptops and reliable high-speed internet.

Some colleges announced plans to help students who might lack access to an internet connection, including opening university libraries on a limited basis and distributing mobile hotspots to students. Many schools also shifted to pass/fail grading system instead of standard letter grades. While this transition could help students in the short-term, switching courses to pass/fail could create potential complications for student credit transfer and graduate schools.  

Admissions & Enrollment

Since the start of the pandemic, concerns over postsecondary enrollment have been prominent for postsecondary institutions. Due to restrictions, campus visits and admissions testing were both significantly disrupted in the late spring. More than 300 schools extended admissions deadline in hopes of giving students more time to decide and many schools waived SAT/ACT requirements.

Despite these adjustments, freshman enrollment in fall 2020 declined by an unprecedented 13.1%. This led to an overall postsecondary enrollment dip of 2.5% according to the most recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse. Enrollment declines vary by institution, but public 2-year institutions have generally seen the largest declines in first-time student enrollment (-21.0%) followed by public colleges and universities (-8.1%). New international student enrollment dropped by 43%.  

Recent preliminary data found that new undergraduate enrollment is down 4.5% in spring 2021.

Institutional Financial Challenges

Unexpected Costs 

Campus closures and the move to online learning caused colleges and universities to face a number of unexpected expenses from the outbreak. These expenses included: refunds issued to students for room and board, increased cleaning operation costs, and growing technology costs from moving courses online. Due to these expenses, several colleges and universities have  announced hiring freezes for faculty and pay cuts or furloughs for staff. Concerns about adjunct and part-time faculty, who make up more than 40% of faculty nationwide, have also emerged. Nearly all adjunct faculty lack paid sick leave and few receive health insurance from their college.  

Uncertain Budgets 

Amidst declining enrollment, public institutions must also navigate likely declines in state funding. The immediate economic impact of the pandemic forced several states to reduce funding for higher education institutions in this fiscal year and several other states relied on federal CARES Act funding to avoid larger cuts. With the outlook for additional federal aid uncertain, larger cuts are possible in many states. 

Student Financial Aid & Affordability 

Disruption caused by the pandemic has impacted both existing students as well as graduating high school senior’s ability to receive and manage financial aid. The Department of Education has compiled guidance and FAQ about federal student aid programs and what flexibility might be available to support students and institutions.

Several states have issued revised guidance regarding scholarship eligibility and requirements that may need changes due to the pandemic. Missouri and West Virginia provided guidance and increased flexibility from state agencies. While Louisiana, Minnesota and Tennessee passed legislation that allows for modifications and waivers for state financial aid programs.

Student Loans

Through executive actions taken by both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, as well as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the COVID-19 Economic Relief Bill passed in December 2020, the federal government has provided significant, temporary relief for most student loan borrowers. The following provisions remain in place: 

  • Payments are deferred and interest is waived until Sept. 30, 2021.
  • Collection actions and penalties are suspended until Sept. 30, 2021.
  • Companies can pay up to $5,250 of employee’s student loan payments on a tax-free basis through Dec. 31, 2025. 
  • Requirements that force students to repay loans if they withdraw from courses are waived during the COVID-19 emergency.

For more information about the federal provisions related to student loan relief, visit this page

Several states have also taken action to provide additional relief to borrowers who may not be eligible for the federal relief measures. Nine states and the District of Columbia reached an agreement with private loan servicers to provide loan relief and at least six states have introduced legislation to address student loan borrowing or debt collection.

Student Work-Study 

The closure of campuses and modified learning environments meant many changes to campus work-study jobs. Roughly 700,000 undergraduate students receive Federal Work-Study subsidies that provide an average yearly award of $1,759 to students. For the spring semester, the Department of Education issued guidance to allow institutions to continue paying students Federal Work-Study wages. Some states, such as Texas also issued guidance to waive regulations to allow students to continue receiving funding for work-study jobs. However, in the fall, many institutions reduced or limited the number of work-study jobs due to campus closures and gathering restrictions.

Student Supports & Resources

Campus Housing and Dining 

Campus closures and limits on in-person gatherings have created significant challenges for students. Many students rely on college housing, dining halls, and other campus resources for support while in school. Abrupt campus closures also create unplanned financial burdens for students who need to leave on short notice. While several colleges have created emergency relief funds and others have offered refunds for students’ room and board. Tuition refunds have not been offered at most schools, but some did reduce tuition (generally between 10-20%) in efforts to boost enrollment in 2021.

Students Abroad & International Students

According to the Institute for International Education, there were more than 1 million international students studying in the U.S. in 2019, an all-time high. International students make up about 6% of the total higher education student population and research finds these students bring engagement benefits for domestic students while providing a key source of revenue for institutions.

However, disruptions from the pandemic and subsequent limitations on travel have significantly reduced international student enrollment. A recent survey found that new international student enrollment dropped by 43% and overall international student enrollment is down 16% in Fall 2020. A report from the NAFSA: Association of International Educators estimates that institutions will lose at least $3 billion due to international student enrollment declines in fall 2020. Additionally, most universities have shut down their study abroad programs and canceled school-sanctioned travel.

Federal guidance for international student enrollment currently remains the same for spring 2020. Under these rules, new international students are only permitted to register for hybrid or in-person learning courses, not full online options. Students who were enrolled prior to the pandemic may remain enrolled, even if the institution moves to fully online education.

Collegiate Athletics

The pandemic continues to disrupt college athletics, even as some sports attempt to play through seasons amid frequent cancellations. The NCAA provides updates and guidance to institutions, but many cancellation rules are decided by athletic conferences or institutions. The combined impact of limited or no in-person fans, as well as the cancellations of lucrative tournaments and games, leaves college athletics facing serious revenue impacts.

Due to the spring cancellation of the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, the NCAA announced that it will cut distributions to Division I schools by up to $375 million due to the cancellations of the tournaments. This reduction in revenue has led to some schools announcing cuts to athletic programs. According to a survey from NBC News, 26 colleges and universities have cut more than 90 sports programs.

State Legislation 

NCSL is actively following legislation related to state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bills are available in the NCSL State Action on Coronavirus (COVID-19) Database. NCSL also follows bills on more than 40 postsecondary education topics in the Postsecondary Bill Tracking Database.

The list below includes a few common areas of legislation related to postsecondary education. 

Emergency Preparedness & Management 

Legislators are also requiring higher education institutions and governing boards to create plans and address the emergency created by the pandemic.

  • Maryland HB 187Requires public institutions of higher education to submit an outbreak response plan to the Maryland Department of Health on or before August 1 each year, beginning in 2021; requiring a public institution of higher education to implement the outbreak response plan under certain circumstances; requiring the outbreak response plan to include certain processes and the provision of certain staff. Enacted.
  • Louisiana SB 481Requires postsecondary education management boards to adopt policies to address the negative impacts on postsecondary students, faculty, and other employees by the public health emergency declared by the governor in response to the novel coronavirus, COVID -19. Enacted. 
Refunds & Reimbursement

As colleges closed on-campus dining and housing, legislators have introduced legislation to ensure that students receive refunds for their room and board expenses.

  • New York SB 8107Requires SUNY and CUNY schools to refund students for housing credits and boarding charges used or charged for the period of time when such schools are closed or shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Pending.
  • Louisiana SB 481Requires each postsecondary education management board to adopt policies related to the refund of tuition and fees as appropriate. Enacted. 
Funding & Appropriations

Given the significant financial uncertainty and challenges facing universities, states are also considering legislation to address funding and support for institutions. 

  • Massachusetts HB 4730—Would establish Emergency Fund for Public Higher Education Institutions. The fund would include grants to help institutions cover the loss of revenue and unexpected expenses associated with the outbreak. Funds could also be used to cover employee’s lost wages, expanded sick time costs and other employment-related expenses. As introduced, the bill would provide $125 million in funding. Pending. 
  • Washington HB 2965Includes provisions for institutions of higher education to separately identify state spending by the appropriations in this act and for other unanticipated spending in response to the coronavirus outbreak funded by appropriations in the omnibus operating appropriations act. Enacted.
Financial Aid

States are also considering legislation to address student financial aid. Some introduced legislation would modify existing financial aid programs with additional flexibility, while other bills would create new programs some of which would support essential or healthcare workers.

  • Louisiana HB 870Provides modifications for the application and approval process for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) scholarship program. Waives some requirements and extends deadlines including for ACT/SAT testing. Enacted.  
  • New York SB 8271Provides financial aid grants (up to $1,500) to individuals who served as essential workers during the state of emergency declared as a result of COVID-19 and are seeking college education or career education and training. Pending. 
Student Loans

While federal student loan borrowers have received some relief from the CARES Act, states are considering additional measures to provide additional support. These bills consider additional suspensions of payments and interest on state-run student loan programs.

  • Minnesota HB 4531Suspends payments and waives interest for the SELF student loan program run by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Enacted. 
  • Massachusetts HD 4961Would suspend payment and collection of student loan payments on student loans issued by the Commonwealth for the duration of the State of Emergency and 360 days after the Emergency Order has expired. Also provides that interest will not accrue, and fees will not be imposed. Pending.


States have considered legislation to provide civil immunity from damage claims by individuals who might be exposed to COVID while on campus. 

  • Louisiana HB 59aProvides immunity for both public and private postsecondary institutions from civil suit except in cases of gross negligence. Enacted.
  • North Carolina SB 208Provides immunity for institutions of higher education for claims related to coronavirus closures for spring 2020. Enacted.  

Federal Action

In the past year, the federal government has passed several packages that provide support to higher education institutions and students as they respond to the Coronavirus.


In late March 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided included $14.25 billion for emergency relief for institutions of higher education to respond to the Coronavirus. These NCSL resources summarize provisions and funding related to higher education in the CARES Act:

COVID-19 Economic Relief Bill

In December 2020, the COVID-19 Economic Relief Bill provided $22.7 billion for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. For more details about this package, visit this page. Congress also passed the FY2021 Omnibus Appropriations Bill which included several legislative add-ons that impact higher education, mainly simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and expanding Pell Grant Eligibility. Additional details about these changes can be found on this page.

American Rescue Plan

In March 2021, the American Rescue Plan provided $40 billion through the existing Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEER) Fund. The package also makes modifications to the federal 90/10 rule, which prohibits for-profit colleges from receiving more than 90% of their revenue from federal aid programs and treats any student loan forgiven or discharged on a tax-free basis from 2021 through 2026. A summary of this package is available on this page.

Additional Resources

Federal Government Resources
Other Resources
Additional NCSL Resources