For years, American colleges and universities have faced financial difficulties. Now, the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating these challenges. Schools have been forced to close their campuses and provide refunds for services such as housing, and enrollment has declined.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 218 American colleges and universities have laid off, furloughed, or not renewed contracts with workers because of Covid-19 — impacting at least 50,904 employees.
The Chronicle also cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics which indicates that colleges employed 19,200 fewer people between February and March. Previously, the largest decrease in employment at colleges between 1990 and 2020 "occurred in 2003, when 8,100 people were estimated to have left the higher-ed workforce," writes the Chronicle.
A wide range of schools have been forced to address employment cuts, including high-profile schools with billion-dollar endowments.
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." It is yet to be seen how these layoffs will play out at Stanford.
Large public university systems have also reduced their workforces.
The University of Massachusetts system reportedly furloughed more than 1,000 workers.
The University of Wisconsin system has indicated that they expect a financial shortfall of at least $100 million because of the coronavirus pandemic and required employees to take furlough days and pay cuts in order save $30 million.
The University of Missouri's website indicates that the university has laid off 148 workers (saving the school $6.51 million), furloughed 3,011 workers (saving the school $3.65 million) and not renewed contracts with 33 workers (saving the school $1.02 million). Additionally, 1,956 University of Missouri employees have seen salary reductions in order to save the school $4.98 million.
"Cuts to the state budget along with student refunds for certain services have created significant budget pressures on the University of Missouri. As a result, administrators have put in place cost-cutting measures, including layoffs, furloughs, travel bans and spending restrictions," reads a statement from The University of Missouri.
Though schools such as the University of Wisconsin have indicated that cost-saving measures will only be in effect through October 31, 2020, many furloughed workers are still unsure how they will be impacted during the upcoming fall semester. As the fall semester nears, many schools are still fine-tuning how they will operate.
Karen Hutcheson, who leads management consulting firm Mercer's talent consulting for colleges, says some schools will likely permanently reduce the size of their workforces.
"We are going to see some adjustments to staffing levels at colleges," she says.
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."
Ken Simek, who oversees Mercer's higher education vertical says some schools will close completely because of the pandemic.
"A number of institutions just won't survive this," he says. "They'll either merge with other institutions or close their doors altogether."