Higher education leaders’ perspectives on impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic

Introduction

In mid-March 2020, the World Health Organization announced that the spread of the COVID-19 virus had reached worldwide pandemic proportions, and within two days the United States declared a national emergency concerning the outbreak.

From a public health perspective for the nation’s colleges and universities, the timing of these declarations was somewhat fortuitous, in that many students were away from their campuses on spring break. Rather than having to protect the health of students, faculty and staff in filled dormitories, classrooms and dining halls—and attempt to mitigate the vibrant social interactions that characterize college campuses—many higher education leaders instead considered the serious risks of allowing students to return from break and, in unprecedented fashion, shut down their campuses forthwith. Others gave students very short notice to move out.

Higher education leaders’ well-advised prioritization of the health and safety of their communities had immediate and wide-ranging academic and financial impacts on their institutions. And illustrating once again how American society at large is reflected in its institutions of higher learning, the stark economic, health and racial disparities that the pandemic has exposed also have been clearly evident in the impacts of COVID-19 in the higher education realm.

To learn more about the effects of the pandemic on colleges and universities—on matters ranging from teaching and learning to revenue sources and research—TIAA conducted a series of in-depth one-onone interviews with two dozen higher education leaders between mid-April and mid-May 2020. This brief summarizes what we learned. Our aim is that the insights gleaned by this exercise will help leaders in their ongoing efforts to navigate the COVID-19 crisis. Our conversations also shed light on how TIAA can help, and we intend to follow through on the recommendations we heard.

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