Presidents Fear Financial, and Human, Toll of Coronavirus

College and university presidents are deeply worried that the coronavirus crisis could wreak havoc on their institutions' finances in the near term and, especially, beyond.

But right now, they say they're most concerned about the toll the crisis could take on the mental health of their students and employees.

Those are among the key findings of a survey of 172 campus leaders Inside Higher Ed conducted with Hanover Research last week (March 17-19), as the sweeping scope of the COVID-19 situation began to come into clearer focus in the United States.

The 172 presidents who responded to the survey answered a set of questions about their near-term and longer-term priorities, the actions they had taken thus far in response, and where they felt best equipped (and not) to handle the impact of the crisis. (Four-year public college leaders were underrepresented among the survey's respondents, at 17.4 percent, while they made up 23.6 percent of the invited sample.)

The questions were generally focused on operational strategies rather than long-term thinking about organizational transformation.

Among the findings:

Presidents put the mental health of students and employees atop their list of short-term concerns -- while their colleges' financial stability and potential enrollment declines are their top longer-term worries.
While nine in 10 campus leaders say mental health is their top concern, fewer than two in 10 say their institution has invested in more mental or physical health resources in response to COVID-19.
In the sudden, forced shift to remote learning, presidents' biggest concern is keeping students engaged (81 percent), followed by ensuring they continue to have access to the education (69 percent).
About a third of presidents foresee in-person classes resuming by the fall semester, but about four in 10 say they can't predict at all.
Asked where they need the most support from governments or others, presidents overwhelmingly cite federal stimulus funds to make up for losses and help with financial planning.

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, said the survey reinforced what the lead association of college presidents is hearing from its members, and showed campus leaders to be focused where Maslow's hierarchy of needs suggests they should be: "on the safety and security of their people, and on their ability to continue their operations."

"The things that lie ahead are ahead -- lots of gathering clouds on the horizon," Mitchell said. "But in the first instance, the students and stakeholder safety is the No. 1 priority of institutions."

The Focus Right Now

The survey first sought to gauge presidents' views on the burning platform issues -- those that were occupying their time and mindspace right now. Asked to rate their level of concern about 11 "immediate-term" issues, campus leaders appeared to prioritize the health and well-being of their people over what are clearly their anxieties about their institutions' financial security -- though only by a small margin.

The mental health of students topped the list of presidents' short-term concerns, cited by 92 percent of presidents, 37 percent of whom said they were very concerned. The mental health of employees followed next, at 88 percent. Two areas that could hurt institutions' near-term economic condition -- unbudgeted financial costs and accelerated rates of student attrition -- came next, followed by concerns about the physical health of students and employees.

About three-quarters of campus leaders expressed concern about students' ability to gain access to the technology tools and platforms needed to continue their education remotely (76 percent) and their faculties' preparedness to deliver virtual education (75 percent). They worried less (56 percent) about their institutions' technological readiness to deliver remote learning.

The survey shows possible mismatches between presidents' top concerns and the actions they've taken so far in response. Asked which steps they had taken (as of last week) as the coronavirus impact cascaded on their campuses, their overwhelming focus has been on closing down their campuses and bringing students and employees back from abroad (or barring them from going).

Far fewer, though (43 percent), said they had taken steps to invest in new online learning resources, which may be because they already had the technology to conduct the sort of remote learning most have embraced in the short term, focused on using videoconferencing technology to stream synchronous instruction.

But only 18 percent said they had invested in additional mental or physical health resources, which seems potentially at odds with their concerns about student and faculty mental health. That's especially true given that many colleges acknowledge having inadequate counseling and other resources to deal with mental health issues in the best of times.

That may not change any time soon.

Presidents who had not yet taken the actions outlined above were asked how likely their institutions were to take those same actions in the future. Of the large majority of presidents who said they had not yet invested in additional physical or mental health resources, fewer than half, 44 percent, said they expected to do so down the road.

Chuck Staben, a professor of biological sciences and former president at the University of Idaho, said it "didn't make much sense" to him that presidents were identifying mental health "as the key issue and not investing [in] it." He said he suspected campus leaders "also see this financial problem looming and don't want to invest at a time when they don't know what their finances will be," but added, "You have to invest to address your problems. If you all see this as the big problem, it's surprising you’re not investing."

Mitchell of ACE said he believed many institutions have invested significantly in student mental health pre-coronavirus, in response to growing demand for services. So "as institutions look at where are the holes they need to fill," he said, "happily student mental health is not at the front of the line because of the investments they’ve already made."

But that doesn't mean responding to student mental health concerns will be easy for institutions or presidents, Mitchell said. "Just as it's hard to move classes online, it's even harder to think about how you take all of your student supports and take them online," he said. "Presidents are grappling with taking forms of engagement that have formerly been campus-based and turn[ing] them into services online or at a distance."

Going Virtual in a Hurry

As seen in the chart above, almost every college ended in-person instruction as the coronavirus hit and moved all teaching and learning into remote or virtual settings, typically after pausing instruction over planned or extended spring breaks to help prepare professors and students alike for the transition. In general, Inside Higher Ed's reporting suggests that the process has generally gone smoothly in its early days, with relatively few complaints from students or significant interruptions in delivery.

While faculty support for technology-enabled learning is historically very mixed, as Inside Higher Ed's annual surveys of faculty views on technology show, that does not appear to be the case in this situation, with fewer than a quarter of presidents saying they found it challenging to get faculty buy-in for the sudden move to remote learning.

But three-quarters of presidents said they found it either very or somewhat challenging to train instructors who are less familiar with digital delivery. Inside Higher Ed's 2019 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology found that fewer than half of professors had taught an online course, and on some campuses that figure is likely to be much higher.

The other significant challenges presidents identified around the move to remote learning had to do with students. Slightly more than two-thirds of campus leaders (69 percent) said they viewed ensuring student access as a challenge, but a greater number, 81 percent, expressed concern about maintaining student engagement.

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