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The outbreak of the coronavirus has become a major disruption to colleges and universities across the country, with most institutions canceling in-person classes and moving to online-only instruction. The pandemic also threatens to significantly alter nearly every aspect of college life, from admissions and enrollment to collegiate athletics. These concerns extend to the financial future of higher education institutions in a time of considerable financial instability, both in the form of unexpected costs and potential reductions in revenue.
As the situation continues to develop, legislators are taking an active role in addressing both the immediate and long-term challenges related to the outbreak. As many colleges close on-campus housing and dining, legislators have introduced bills to ensure students receive refunds for room and board expenses. Other states are considering bills that would pause the collection of payments on state held student loans. Pending legislation also requires higher education institutions to develop and expand emergency preparedness and response plans. Legislators are also exploring strategies to address funding and appropriations for public colleges and universities.
Immediate Challenges and Responses
Closures & Move to Online Instruction
On March 6, the University of Washington became the first major university to cancel in-person classes and exams. By the middle of March, colleges across the country had followed suit and more than 1,100 colleges and universities in all 50 states have cancelled in-person classes or shifted to online-only instruction.
As colleges maintain bans on large gatherings, many spring graduation ceremonies have been cancelled or postponed. Some schools, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, have announced plans to hold online or virtual commencement ceremonies.
Several schools including Arizona State University, University of Alabama, the University of North Carolina system and Texas Tech University have announced plans to reopen campuses in the fall, with various social distancing approaches in place to protect student and faculty health.
As colleges move to online-only classes for instruction, additional concerns arise about the quality of educational instruction that can be provided remotely. Previous studies have warned that student performance, particularly for students who are already academically struggling, can seriously suffer in online courses. Other research has found that up to 20% of college students have issues accessing effective technology including working laptops and reliable high-speed internet.
Some colleges have also announced plans to help students who might lack access to an internet connection, including opening university libraries on a limited basis and distributing mobile hotspots to students. Southern New Hampshire University, an online university, published a guide with tips and resources to help other schools manage and improve online instruction.
The shift to online courses has also prompted many colleges to reconsider grading systems to try and accommodate and support students in transition. More than a dozen schools have announced plans to shift to pass/fail grading instead of standard letter grades. While this transition could help students in the short-term, switching courses to pass/fail could create potential complications for student credit transfer and graduate schools.
Immediate Financial Challenges
In the short-term, colleges and universities face a number of unexpected expenses from the outbreak, including:
Pro-rated refunds issued to students for room and board- These refunds will impact institutions differently, but for many schools with high numbers of students living on campus, the refunds will amount to a substantial unexpected cost. For example, the University of Wisconsin system, which includes 13 campuses, estimates that it will issue about $78 million in refunds.
Dorm cleaning operations- Many schools had to spend additional money to clean dorms and other facilities after students left.
Increased technology costs associated with moving to online courses.
Several colleges and universities have also announced hiring freezes for faculty and pay cuts or furloughs for staff. Concerns about adjunct and part-time faculty, who make up more than 40% of faculty nationwide, have also emerged. Nearly all adjunct faculty lack paid sick leave and few receive health insurance from their college.