7 ways the coronavirus pandemic could change college this fall and forever

Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way students live and learn. Colleges have closed their campuses and moved classes online; some have decided to no longer require standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT for admissions; and many have opted to use pass/fail grading. 

Some of these changes will be temporary, but others may be permanent.

CNBC Make It spoke with education experts, including professors, business leaders and lawyers to learn how higher education may be changed by the coronavirus pandemic: 

Fewer roommates and emergency quarantine dorms

One aspect of college life that many predict will change following the pandemic is housing. Several schools have announced that they will attempt to make campus housing less dense, which means the typical small college dorm room crammed with several roommates may become a thing of the past

George Mason University, for instance, has announced that student housing will be reduced by about 25% in order to reduce the number of students in high-density spaces, increase the number of single dorm rooms and create open housing in case students need to be isolated.

Typically, just 23% of George Mason's 26,192 undergraduate students live on campus, giving the school the relative flexibility to make such adjustments. 

The University of Maryland, which historically has had a larger on-campus population, is also attempting to make on-campus housing less dense. 

According to U.S. News and World Report, 41% University of Maryland's 30,762 undergraduates — about 12,612 students — typically live on campus. But according to a recent statement from Wallace D. Loh, the school's outgoing president, this number will be lower next semester. 

"There are 8,900 bed spaces in University residence halls. To de-densify, triples and quad units are converted to doubles, and floor lounges are made into single or double rooms to minimize the opportunities for larger gatherings," wrote Loh. "The approved plan is to offer University housing to more than 75% of all the students who applied for housing, including all first-year students. This plan also sets aside residential spaces for isolation and quarantining, if needed." 

More digital textbooks

Mike Huseby, CEO of Barnes and Noble Education, says the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated a trend his business has been anticipating for years — the rise of digital textbooks. 

"Physical textbooks are still the preferred format for students, whether because they don't want to rely on an internet connection or because it's more comfortable. We believe there's still a very long tailwind on the physical book, but the shift to digital is accelerating," says Huseby. "I guess a watershed moment might be a good way to describe it. And it's something we've been planning for."

The CEO says that at his organization, the percentage of courseware that is offered digitally has increased from around 20% at the beginning of this past semester to about 30% this summer. 

He says this shift to digital courseware will also bring new models of paying for — and distributing — textbooks, such as "inclusive access" programs where all students pay a lower flat fee included in their tuition that gives all students access to digital courseware.

"It levels the playing field from a socioeconomic standpoint," says Huseby noting that as much as one-third of students do not buy textbooks, either digitally or physically, either because they chose not to or because they cannot afford them. "And digital courseware can scale in a very cost-effective way."

A college graduate calls their family on video to celebrate
Kemal Yildirim | Getty Images

More students studying online full-time

When the coronavirus forced schools to close their campuses and move classes online in March, essentially all college students were forced to become online learners. Some believe that these students will continue to choose online learning in the years ahead. 

Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that researches disruptive innovation, anticipates that more students will consider learning online as a result of the pandemic. 

"I wouldn't be surprised to see enrollment in residential college programs drop by roughly 10% or so in the fall, and revenue to fall around 20% if students won't be able to attend in-person in the fall," says Horn. "On the flip side, I think we will see enrollments in online programs rise quite a bit, driven by adult learners — many of whom have been recently laid off — looking to wait out the recession and use their time productively by skilling up."

"We're not going to see everybody moving online and we're not going to see everybody moving back to campus, face to face. I think we will see a very rich set of choices emerge," Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage, a global education and technology company tells CNBC Make It. "It's not going to happen overnight, but it will happen over the next few years, and in that respect, I think COVID-19 will be looked back at as an incredibly powerful inflection point for the system."

Not only will students be more open to learning online, but they also may be more open to learning in alternative ways.

Hansen predicts that many of the 36 million unemployed Americans who have lost their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic will choose to learn specific skills — through coding bootcamps, certificate programs, etc. — rather than go back to college full-time to earn an advanced degree, such as a master's degree, which was common during the 2008 recession

"I think we will see a breakup of that monolithic tuition system," he explains. "I think we'll see more bite-size types of educations where you say, 'I want to learn a particular programming skill, let me learn that. It takes four weeks, six weeks, or eight weeks and then I'm done and I'm going to pay $2,800 for it."

Fewer international students

Due to coronavirus-related international travel restrictions and difficulties obtaining student visas, it is likely the number of international students studying in the United States will decrease. 

The American Council on Education predicts that the number of international students will decrease by 25% next year, resulting in a revenue loss for institutions of $23 billion. It is yet to be seen if this will be a permanent or temporary change. 

Ken Simek is a partner at management consulting firm Mercer and leads the organization's higher education consulting operations. "There are a number of institutions that rely heavily on international students because international students tend to pay full fare with no discount in tuition," he explains. 

Indeed, many colleges use the revenue from international students, who typically do not qualify for financial aid and often pay the full sticker price at their given school, to subsidize costs for domestic students.

Without these funds, experts like Simek expect some schools to struggle financially. 

College layoffs

Indeed, schools will face additional financial pressures following the coronavirus pandemic. For many schools, even wealthy ones, these pressures may lead to layoffs. 

For instance, in May, Stanford University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced in a letter to the Stanford community that the school was facing financial challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic and that some reduction in the school's workforce would likely be "unavoidable" — in spite of the school's $27.7 billion endowment. 

"We don't yet know the scale of job reductions," wrote Tessier-Lavigne. "We hope they will be limited, but they will be driven by the program needs and budget capacity of individual units."

"I think we are going to see some adjustments to staffing levels at colleges," confirms Karen Hutcheson, who leads Mercer's talent consulting for colleges. 

She stresses that schools that were financially struggling before the coronavirus pandemic are much more likely to face adjustments. "For institutions that are going to [reduce staffing levels], this particular crisis has probably accelerated those decisions because most institutions we've been speaking with have wanted to do some type of analysis to determine whether or not they were appropriately staffed."

Closed colleges

For many years now, education analysts such as late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, have predicted that as much as half of U.S. colleges and universities would close, in part due to dropping enrollment numbers because of an aging population (known as the enrollment crunch) as well as technological disruption. 

"The trend of colleges closing absolutely has been accelerated. Without significant state or federal intervention, we're going to see a lot of colleges close," says Aaron Rasmussen, co-founder of MasterClass.

"We were expecting that over the next five years there would be many colleges closing, partly just due to the enrollment crunch, but we're projecting that that's going to be happening much, much more quickly and it will probably exceed the enrollment crunched by quite a bit."

While it is yet to be seen if such a large volume of schools will close, the coronavirus pandemic will undoubtedly impact the bottom lines of thousands of schools. 

"A number of institutions just won't survive this," says Simek. "They'll either merge with other institutions or close their doors altogether."

Increased inequality

Many fear that the coronavirus pandemic will exacerbate existing inequalities among college students. 

For instance, the NAACP has raised concerns that the coronavirus pandemic will cause increased housing insecurity for Black college students. 

Kimberly Churches, president of American Association of University Women adds that women, and Black women in particular, are among the students most likely to be negatively burdened by student debt because of Covid-19. 

Additionally, Todd Rose, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education predicts that wealthy college students will fare the best in the months and years ahead. 

While wealthy students have long had an upper hand in the college admissions process, many anticipate that it will get even easier for them. "If you can pay full price right now, the world's your oyster," says Rose.

Historically, students who do not need financial assistance have an easier time getting into schools that are not need-blind and that rely on tuition revenue. But now that colleges are facing additional coronavirus-related costs and many schools are desperate to keep their enrollment numbers up, it will be even easier for well-off students to get into many colleges, explains Rose. 

He also points out that learning online is significantly easier for students that have strong academic backgrounds, reliable internet connections and sufficient technology.

"The students that will do well online are people who are already prepared. You have to be pretty self-directed," he says. "Poor students and first-generation students often don't do as well online."

He says that at-risk students such as these will need additional support for the foreseeable future. He says local governments should consider initiatives similar to the Duet Program in Boston that gives students who are earning their college degrees online physical space to work, a computer, internet access and local mentors, to make sure low-income online learners don't fall through the cracks. 

Don't miss:

These college seniors had job offers lined up–then the pandemic hit
These college seniors had job offers lined up–then the pandemic hit