How the Coronavirus is Pushing Higher Education Online

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Education has been one of the victims of the coronavirus pandemic. Given the inherent threat of infection from a precipitate return by students and staff to schools and colleges, countries around the world must rethink the online learning model, argues Shai Reshef, Founder and President of University of the People, a private non-profit, tuition-free, US-accredited, distance-education university.

How the Coronavirus is Pushing Higher Education Online

Digital learning in progress: With the pandemic leading to significant drops in enrollment, major budget cuts, layoffs and furloughs, the traditional bricks-and-mortar university model may be unsustainable (Credit: Tzido Sun /

The impact of the coronavirus outbreak on global higher education can be compared to a 1,700-foot-tall tsunami heading toward a beachfront house where the residents refuse to leave, insisting that they have made it through hurricanes for 40 years so they can handle this too.

The pandemic’s huge financial toll on students and their families has elicited forecasts that higher education is about to experience significant drops in enrollment, forcing major budget cuts, layoffs, and furloughs. The traditional bricks-and-mortar model of college, in my view, cannot possibly be sustainable under these circumstances. But you would never know it from the way many schools are forging ahead into the fall.           

If the US is the bellwether for world education, the next few years are not only going to be very hard for everybody, but the “norm” will change dramatically. The ripple effects have been building at a rapid pace. Students’ reluctance to return forced more than 400 colleges to move National College Acceptance Day from May 1 to June 1, hoping the extra time would coax more to send deposits to their final choice of school. In frequent newspapers and letters to their boards, colleges have laid bare the financial damage from housing, parking and dining fee refunds and the cancellation of all campus activities. All types of institutions have been affected, from big state schools such as Ohio University (down US$18 million) and research universities such as Johns Hopkins (US$100 million in the hole) to elite institutions including Stanford (a loss of US$267 million).

The American Council on Education projects an enrollment decline of 25 percent for the usually full-tuition-paying international students, resulting in a revenue loss of US$23 billion. It is not far-fetched to imagine a college deathwatch in the near future. Yale University, like thousands of other schools, has not announced their fall plans yet. But the school’s Yale Daily News reported that more than half their students said they would at least ‘likely’ postpone enrollment if they moved to an all-online model.

Some private colleges are raising their tuition as if oblivious that 30 million US jobs have been shed since the pandemic struck: Tulane (an increase of 3.6 percent), Tufts (1.6 percent), Washington University in St. Louis (3.7 percent), Haverford (2.5 percent), and Amherst (3.9 percent).

While lifting its tuition by 3.5 percent, Elon University, a midsized private institution in North Carolina, sent out a note to families that it would not change or refund tuition and fees if they move from in-person classes this fall (which they already announced) to online. Further tightening the screws (and covering its bottom line), Elon added the unusual language that it “reserves the right to increase overall tuition, cost per credit, education fees, and room and board charges on a semester basis.”

Here is the reality check: Colleges will be particularly susceptible to the coronavirus this fall since all their students will be returning from their homes, carrying whatever microbes and germs they may have been exposed to. If local bars and restaurants operate normally, fraternities and sororities resume their social activities, gyms and stadiums fill up for sports games, and classes are held in the same lecture rooms, colleges will become the biggest super-spreader hosts the world has seen since the pandemic began.

The potential campus scenario could mirror the highly misguided approaches of US states such as Texas, Arizona, and Florida, criticized for reopening too soon, which led to skyrocketing infections and hospital beds at capacity. In a mere few weeks into the semester, schools could be scrambling to set up online classes again. According to a model created by the University of Pennsylvania’s Philip Gressman and Swarthmore College’s Jennifer Peck, if a college did nothing to prevent a virus from spreading, more than 2,000 people would be infected within 30 days of the first infection.

This would not be a problem if universities were to adhere to a sound, well planned online model. Congregations would be avoided, student collaboration would not only possible but built into the syllabus, sports events could be viewed remotely, and music and theater productions could be adapted for online ticketing and Zoom viewing. There would be no need to license software to create virtual classrooms: Schools could migrate to the popular free open-source Moodle platform used by 158,000 sites in 243 countries.

Harvard Yard: Elite selective schools will not change at all, with the richest, most-connected people attending for top-dollar fees (Credit: Joseph Williams)

Harvard Yard: Elite selective schools will not change at all, with the richest, most-connected people attending for top-dollar fees (Credit: Joseph Williams)

The schools which do not adjust to an effective online model or have the resources to survive the financial roller-coaster may have to merge or close. Experts are already predicting that this year alone will set a record for “mega-bankruptcies” – companies with US$1 billion or more in debt. Higher education is just as susceptible to these same economic threats. Universities may be forced to sell some or all of their real estate holdings, as there will be fewer students on campus and it would be pointless to maintain the upkeep of buildings. Research universities without sizable endowments will find themselves especially vulnerable because they are dependent on tuition. Students may push back on funding research to help lower their bills.

In countries like Sweden, Norway, Ireland, Denmark and Finland, students either attend college for free or their tuition is heavily subsidized. Depending on the severity and frequency of virus outbreaks and their economic impact, governments may reduce their contribution, putting a burden on students for the first time. After a long history of free public university that ended in 1998, the UK currently charges students up to £9,250 (US$11,550) a year for an undergraduate degree. With Britain among the worst-hit advanced economies, it is entirely possible that government subsidies may be reduced in the future.    

Eventually, higher education will evolve into three groups created from price pressures on universities, and each school will have to decide what direction they wish to take to carry on.

The Elite: Top-tier universities such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford will not change at all. They will be very selective, carry very few students, maintain the most prestige, and be attended by the richest, most connected people for top-dollar fees. If Harvard decided tomorrow that their tuition would be US$1 million a year, it would still have more students interested in enrolling than they can accommodate.

The Accessible: Entirely online schools that offer a good quality bare-bones education at a very inexpensive price. Each one will approach it with their own style, varying in size, and how many majors they offer. My own University of the People, which is nonprofit, tuition-free and US-accredited, fits into this category.

The Specialists: This will be the largest of the three groups, making up the middle ground. Colleges will specialize in their offerings to the point where higher education will look more like commodities. For example, some universities will market themselves as the foremost authorities on ancient Greece. Students will have to decide how much they are willing to pay to study that topic, perhaps US$10,000-15,000 a year, not the US$70,000-$100,000 universities have been accustomed to charging. Other institutions will promote their arrangements with large corporations who will hire their best graduates. They may specialize by their locality, sports teams, size, blend of offline and online classes, or whatever each one decides is their biggest selling point, and they will determine a price tag to go with that.  

Outside the US, online education has been a more difficult proposition, but the coronavirus might level the playing field. Countries might be forced to improve their internet capacity and penetration so students can learn online inexpensively. In the coronavirus’ aftermath, building bricks-and-mortar schools will be impractical and expensive. I have high hopes for parts of Africa catching up quickly because there are not enough places at their universities.

In the Arab world, online education is rare and, in spring 2020, most universities simply shut down because of the coronavirus. Recognizing that online education is the only way for them to catch up with 21st-century methodologies in the pandemic’s aftermath. In India, online studies at the tertiary level were subject to heavy restrictions until recently. In February, just before Covid-19 struck, the government announced that universities would be allowed to offer online degrees for the first time. As another country with a drastic shortage of university seats, India could expand online offerings to accommodate the student demand driven by the pandemic preventing them from studying overseas.           

There is no doubt that many students desire to be world travelers but are frustrated by the movement restrictions the virus could impose for a while. If students cannot get to the countries in which they wish to study, then it makes sense to provide them with an immersive online experience. They can study with students from around the world, make friends, and get to know other cultures without the risk of infection. In every one of our own courses at University of the People, we have 20 students from 20 countries. Everybody works in teams from around the world. They are so grateful for an opportunity that they may not have had under other circumstances.

It is clear to everyone that there could be additional waves of pandemic infections or new viruses could even emerge. This is the time for governments and institutions to preserve and cultivate their online systems. This is the only solution for securing the future of higher education.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Shai Reshef

Shai Reshef

University of the People

Founder and president of University of the People, Shai Reshef is an educational entrepreneur, with over 25 years of experience in the international education market. His TED Talk has reached over 6 million viewers. Reshef was chosen as one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business. He was among Wired Magazine’s 50 People Changing the World and Foreign Policy magazine’s Top Global Thinkers. The Huffington Post named him the Ultimate Game Changer in Education. He was granted a Royal Society of Arts Fellowship. Founded in 2009, the University of the People is the first and only nonprofit, tuition-free, US-accredited online university. UoPeople has academic partnerships with New York University, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of California, Berkeley. Ninety-two percent of UoPeople graduates are employed at such companies as Amazon, Apple, Dell, Deloitte, IBM, Microsoft, and JP Morgan, and at international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank. UoPeople is supported by the generosity of individuals and institutions including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Carnegie Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Fondation Hoffmann, and others.

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