Over the course of the next several weeks, JP Marvel will publish the series “2025: Long Term Effects of COVID-19”, an exploratory imagining of life in 2025, after COVID-19. Each series entry will provide a hypothetical 2025 reflection on the pandemic’s impact since 2020, focusing on a key aspect of American industry, commerce, government, society, or culture.
The US higher education system is in turmoil. Prior to the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown, the system was stressed because large swaths of school budgets were unaligned with reality. Up to 30% of US colleges were running at deficits, as they had invested heavily in facilities and amenities to attract more students. This did not achieve the desired effect as they continued to see a shrinking pool of candidates and total admissions dropped 6.5% from 2010 to 2018. To make up for the budget shortfalls, schools turned to two methods. First, they raised tuition. This further decreased domestic demand for higher education and increased the need to attract more international students who valued the “American education” brand. Second, schools took on more debt, mostly in the form of municipal bonds. From 2011 to 2016, debt loads rose 18% to $140 billion at public universities and 3% to $95 billion at private universities. With less revenue and more debt, universities put more of their budgets toward debt servicing, which increased 9% per year for some institutions, far outpacing their tuition growth.
When COVID-19 hit, the already weak higher education system buckled. Schools in major metropolitan areas like NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston were forced to close physical locations for an entire year. Smaller schools shuttered permanently because, without revenue, they quickly defaulted on their loans. Larger schools raced to absorb these defunct institutions. Medium-sized schools merged in a desperate attempt to remain viable.
As COVID-19 waned, schools struggled to lure back students. In-person education student enrollment has since fallen 15%. Schools have also seen a larger drop in international student enrollment, and this has been especially taxing on school budgets because a disproportionate percentage of international students pay full tuition. The dorm system, which had long been a critical revenue source for schools, is at only 70% capacity because the traditional sardine-can method of housing students is now deemed too dangerous. Schools did significantly improve their remote programs offerings, but these degrees are still less favored than traditional in-person programs as both employers and students greatly value in-person networking.
This has all led to a fracturing of the higher education system into two distinct tiers. The first tier consists of the privileged minority that can afford in-person education. The second tier comprises the supermajority that has limited financial means and thus drawn to cheaper, more convenient remote education programs. Some fear that this widening dichotomy will effectively institutionalize income disparity and economic inequality.
Higher education remains in heavy demand because a disproportionate number of the jobs created after COVID-19 have been high-tech focused, requiring workers to have specialized education. Tuition continues to grow faster than inflation; however, with fewer international students and more remote programs, schools may need to drop their rates as applicants become more price-sensitive and increasingly demand government regulation of tuition, a topic likely to become a hot button issue for the 2026 midterm elections.
In our next report we will begin to discuss how “going out in the world” has forever changed post COVID-19 and focus on how American travel will be different in 2025 for both citizens and the industries involved.