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No ‘Return to Normal’

What presidents, students, and parents expect from the coronavirus fallout

By Ben Dedman

May 1, 2020

Since colleges and universities across the country shut down their campuses and students returned home in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, campuses have struggled to plan for a future that is still not completely clear. How will faculty and students adapt to online learning? When can campuses reopen? And when they do, how many students will come back?

In April, several surveys were released detailing the shifting plans of college presidents, students, and parents. Some show signs of hope, including that more than half of campuses are planning to reopen as early as this summer or fall. Others are potentially catastrophic, including fears that enrollment for the fall semester will decline precipitously or that the crisis is disproportionately affecting minoritized and low-income students.

Early Warnings of Enrollment Declines for the Fall

  • An ongoing poll by Strada Education Network estimates that the novel coronavirus has caused 28 million Americans—or 11 percent of adults eighteen years old or older—to cancel education plans.[1]
  • Based on several surveys it conducted, education research firm SimpsonScarborough anticipates college enrollment will decline up to 20 percent for the fall semester. (These figures do not include two-year schools or international students.)[2]
  • More than a quarter (26 percent) of college students reported that they would not return to campus in the fall or that it was “too soon to tell,” according to SimpsonScarborough’s findings.
  • Many students are unhappy with the learning they are receiving online, with 85 percent wanting to return to campus and just 15 percent hoping to continue online, SimpsonScarborough found.
  • In Brian Communications’ national survey of 405 parents of high schoolers, 40 percent say that the pandemic may delay their child from going to college.[3]
  • The same survey found that clearer communication could help to assuage the fears of prospective students and their parents. More than half of parents (59 percent) say they received no information about schools’ safety plans, and 85 percent “need more information on how colleges and universities are handling the crisis.”

Presidents Are Uncertain When Face-to-Face Classes Will Resume

  • While many presidents expect their campuses to reopen this summer or by the start of the fall semester, many are still unsure when they will reverse the actions they have taken.
  • In a survey of 187 college and university presidents in April, Inside Higher Ed found that more than half are uncertain when they will unfreeze or restore benefits, lift bans on international travel for students and faculty, or change revised admissions requirements.[4]
  • And while 47 percent of presidents say that their campuses will resume on-campus classes by the start of the fall semester, 34 percent are uncertain and 8 percent do not expect to reopen until January 2021.

The Effects of Coronavirus on Minoritized Students’ Plans

  • The novel coronavirus has affected the plans of a larger percentage of students from minoritized backgrounds (64 percent) than white students (44 percent), SimpsonScarborough found.[5]
  • While 41 percent of high school seniors from minoritized backgrounds plan skip college in the fall or haven’t decided yet, just 24 percent of white students said the same.
  • Nearly a third (32 percent) of current college students from minoritized backgrounds are unlikely to return to campus this fall or are unsure, compared with 22 percent of white students.

Presidents Are “Cautiously Optimistic,” but Many Consider Laying Off Staff

  • In a recent poll of AAC&U’s Presidents’ Trust members, more than two-thirds of college and university presidents (72 percent) were considering laying off staff, and more than half (55 percent) were considering across-the-board cuts.[6]
  • Presidents were “cautiously optimistic,” with nearly two-thirds (64 percent) believing the scenarios their institutions faced would be moderate and 36 percent believing they would be severe.
  • Presidents expected to take a variety of actions, including re-engineering operations, providing refunds, freezing hiring, implementing furloughs, or laying off staff (see figure 1).
  • “We are planning for six potential scenarios. Even our best-case scenario does not envision a ‘return to normal,’” one president said.

Figure 1.


Student Mental Health, Disproportionate Effects on Low-Income Students, and Enrollment Declines Top President Concerns

  • In the Inside Higher Ed survey, presidents were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about a variety of short-term factors related to the mental and physical health of students and faculty, student attrition, readiness for and access to online technology, and financial issues. Students’ mental health (91 percent) and disproportionate effects on low-income students (87 percent) topped the list (see figure 2).[7]
  • Presidents’ long-term worries include declines in student enrollment (90 percent), inequitable consequences for underrepresented students (90 percent), financial stability (88 percent), and affording staff and faculty (83 percent).

Figure 2.


Institutions Grapple with the Move Online

  • In the Inside Higher Ed poll, presidents outlined the many actions they’ve taken to mitigate the crisis, with virtually all campuses moving classes online (98 percent) and implementing remote work policies (97 percent). Most have suspended travel for staff (85 percent) or students (82 percent), suspended athletic programs (75 percent), and invested in online resources (69 percent).[8]
  • Institutions struggled to move learning online, with many presidents saying it is “very” or “somewhat” challenging to maintain student engagement (77 percent), train faculty (68 percent), or ensure student access (69 percent).
  • Three quarters (76 percent) of presidents whose institutions have not invested in online resources say it is “somewhat” or “very” likely their institution will invest in new online resources. Many others say their institution will likely move admissions online (70 percent), invest in more physical and mental health resources (62 percent), or reduce their workforce (62 percent).
  • Presidents expect some investments will be permanent, including investments in mental and physical health (40 percent) or online learning (50 percent).


[1]An Estimated 28 Million Americans Have Cancelled Education Plans Due to Coronavirus,” Strada Education, April 29, 2020.

[2] Scott Jaschik, “20% Enrollment Drop Seen,” Inside Higher Ed, May 4, 2020.

[3]Crisis in Higher Education: Pandemic May Cause 40% of High School Seniors to Delay College,” Brian Communications, April 14, 2020.

[4] Doug Lederman, “Low-Income Students Top Presidents’ COVID-19 Worry List,” Inside Higher Ed, April 27, 2020. Figure 2 included from this report by permission of Inside Higher Ed.

[5] Jaschik, “20% Enrollment Drop Seen.”

[6] Paul N. Friga, “COVID-19 Strategy Survey of AACU Presidents” (Chapel Hill, NC: ABC Insights, 2020).

[7] Lederman, “Low-Income Students Top Presidents’ COVID-19 Worry List.”

[8] Lederman, “Low-Income Students Top Presidents’ COVID-19 Worry List.”


  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.