How the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Positively Changed College Forever

Renee Layberry
Mar 17, 2021

College will certainly look different this fall in response to the coronavirus. And many of those changes will likely persist even after the pandemic ends.   The good news is that the shift in the higher education landscape may actually provide unexpected benefits to students. First-year and returning students alike should be prepared for a bold new approach to education.  

Four ways the pandemic will change your college experience

There are at least four major changes students can expect to see now and in the months to come. Plus, there are surprising benefits these changes may usher in. The changes include fewer schools to choose from, some shorter programs, fewer midterm breaks, and how college athletics is handled overall.   Let’s dive in.  

Students will have fewer schools to choose from

Before the pandemic, students had an enormous number of colleges and universities to choose from. As financial markets have shifted, however, some smaller schools have been forced to close or merge with larger schools to survive.   In some cases, the coronavirus hastened the closure of schools already facing financial problems. Since 2016, more than 60 colleges in 27 states have closed their doors. Most of those schools were small, private colleges. Some had been in operation for more than 100 years and had a strong emphasis on liberal arts education.   Decreased enrollment along with higher operating costs are forcing colleges to rethink business models unsuited for the current economic landscape.   Smaller schools that are merging with larger universities can benefit students with:
  • larger endowments;
  • a greater range of resources; and,
  • the location of the school is sometimes better.
  Small-town colleges are disproportionately closing because students look for internships and post-college job opportunities in bigger cities. Colleges in larger urban areas can offer more connections and work-study experiences during college.   For-profit colleges are experiencing big hits as well. In cases where retention and graduation rates are low, students and parents can’t afford to risk high tuition rates that may not pay off, especially during a pandemic when employment opportunities are low.   Photo by Jonas Jacobsson

The plus side of fewer schools

While having fewer schools to choose from may seem like a net loss for students, there are benefits that students can expect to see. The coronavirus is forcing small liberal arts colleges to rethink their financial models to ensure that a high-quality, student-centered humanities education remains an affordable investment.   In many cases, administrators and faculty at surviving smaller colleges are widely sharing with employers the research-based evidence that liberal arts-based education is not only practical but also lucrative.    A recent study by Georgetown University showed that the long-term return on investment in a liberal arts degree is almost $200,000 higher than that for all colleges. The pandemic has provided the impetus for smaller colleges that aren’t producing high returns to adapt, merge, or close – meaning that students are now choosing from the institutions that have best adapted to their needs.   As all schools adapt and focus on student learning, college students will see better education – and more bang for their buck – at whatever type of institution they choose. Having fewer institutions to choose from may simply mean that the remaining choices are the best options.  

Programs might be shorter

Higher education has settled on four years as the typical period necessary for most students to obtain a bachelor’s degree (with some exceptions for professional programs, like pharmacy or engineering).    Some institutions are rethinking this. The pandemic has resulted in schools serving a smaller number of students on campus at any given time. That means offering accelerated degree programs, for instance, which can include hybrid or online summer classes. Other options might be opportunities for credit hours during traditional downtimes, such as winter and summer breaks. Students could finish programs in three years instead of four.   Photo by Susan Yin

The plus side of shorter programs

One obvious advantage of shorter programs is that the faster you get your degree, the sooner you'll be able to start your career. You'll begin earning sooner, paying your loans off sooner, and saving sooner.   With more online classes that shorter programs will feature, students can also expect to see the quality of online instruction to improve. Institutions have started and will continue to train all faculty in creating and running high-quality remote learning experiences.    As higher ed institutions reconfigure the learning environment, students will see increasingly streamlined programming and hybrid delivery approaches. That doesn’t mean students will be learning less. It simply means that colleges will be able to create degree programs that are more efficient. The end result will be getting students into the workplace faster with the skills they need to succeed.  

Say goodbye to (short) breaks

Midterm breaks during fall and spring semester are a college tradition, but those are gone for most schools this fall and may not return in the future. Many higher ed institutions across the country have announced that they are cancelling fall break this year and ending the semester a week earlier than usual.    The reasoning behind eliminating breaks is to prevent students from leaving their schools,  traveling, and then returning and potentially spreading the virus.   Outside of the midterm break, fall semester presents a particular challenge for colleges because of the Thanksgiving holiday at the end of November. Some schools are responding by moving their courses online after Thanksgiving. In those cases, students will pack up and leave residence halls and return home to finish the term online.   Limiting student travel during the semester means less exposure for everyone. It also means that students will be experiencing more intense learning experiences while they are on campus.  

The plus side of fewer breaks

The upside to eliminating breaks, beyond controlling the potential spread of the coronavirus, is that students can look forward to longer breaks between semesters. Those breaks can provide opportunities for students to gain work experience or take advantage of intersession classes offered online.    Even after the pandemic ends, students can expect to see colleges make scheduling decisions that allow for more flexibility, ultimately offering more choices for students of all ages and backgrounds. When travel is safe again, for instance, students will be able to take longer trips, including study abroad opportunities, during these longer winter and summer breaks.   Photo by Ben Hershey

Athletics will look different

College athletics are woven into the fabric of higher ed, but the coronavirus is going to seriously impact how sports are played and enjoyed by fans. Athletics will look very different this year, especially in the fall. While some colleges have already cancelled their football season, others are looking for ways to move forward safely.   The NCAA recently released safety guidelines for all college athletic programs. The statement requires colleges to have a plan in place for maintaining athlete safety first and foremost.   It’s unlikely that fans will be in the stands, which means that college students will have to support their teams by watching broadcasts. Games may be played in neutral locations to limit player travel. In some cases, player training will begin later than normal and seasons may be truncated.  

The plus side of changing the sports focus

Diehard sports fans will undoubtedly miss being in the bleachers, but a changing athletic landscape may have a positive long-term effect on institutions. Colleges that relied heavily on sports for financial gain will have to rethink their business model to account for any losses. Reconsidering and reprioritizing financial expenditures will undoubtedly benefit all students.   Some institutions may find that college sports have not been a good use of resources. Eliminating or minimizing athletic programming at smaller schools will free up money for other student activities and instruction. In the future, college athletics may be limited to the large schools that can afford to maintain the programs without taxing other aspects of the institution.   Photo by Eric Ward

College is still your best investment in your future

The pandemic is responsible for changing the future of higher education, not just next semester but in years to come. It’s hard to know just how far-reaching and long-lasting these changes may be.    Students and parents are experiencing a great deal of trepidation as they consider what to do next year. Meanwhile, administrators, staff, and faculty continue to prepare for more remote instruction, more hybrid options, and modified in-person classes that simply don’t look anything like what they imagine a college classroom to be.   Amid all the uncertainty, though, what we do know is that these forced changes are spurring an unprecedented re-imagining of what college can be. The coronavirus is the impetus forcing colleges and universities to get serious about changing their unsustainable financial models. It’s driving every type of institution to improve instruction. And it’s opening up opportunities for making education more flexible and ultimately more accessible to a wider range of students.   For more information on how to fund your college degree, check out our top student loan lenders.