Go back

Smaller US universities financially vulnerable after Covid


Survey also reveals widespread focus on campus diversity issues in wake of George Floyd murder

Three quarters of higher education institutions in the United States have ranked financial constraints as one of their top challenges in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a survey, with smaller institutions much more likely to feel financially vulnerable than their larger counterparts.

The survey of over 700 higher education professionals was carried out by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in the autumn of 2020, and focused on challenges and priorities for AAC&U member institutions as they navigated both the pandemic and widespread protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd and police violence against African Americans more generally.

One of a series, the survey was intended to help AAC&U understand how its members are operating around issues such as providing engaging learning experiences and assessing student success.

Not one-size-fits-all

While overall 74 per cent of respondents said that financial constraints were a top challenge, the figure rose to 79 per cent for institutions with fewer than 5,000 students and fell to just 52 per cent for institutions with more than 30,000 students. This pattern of elevated financial concerns among smaller institutions played out across issues including potential declines in enrolment due to Covid-19.

Similarly, 73 per cent of respondents at universities and colleges with fewer than 5,000 students said they were very concerned about their institution’s ability to withstand another “large-scale tragedy” like the pandemic, compared with only 48 per cent for institutions with more than 30,000 students. Faculty members were more likely than their administrative colleagues to express concern over their institution’s vulnerability to future tragedies.

Ashley Finley, the vice-president for research at AAC&U and the author of the survey report published on 16 August, said: “There is no one-size-fits-all narrative for colleges and universities as they plan for the future. The survey findings underscore the need for nuance in how challenges and strategic priorities are perceived across higher education.”

Diversity matters

In line with the overarching financial concerns of institutions, the most commonly listed strategic priority for respondents was improving student retention and completion. But improving campus diversity, equity and inclusion was rated as a priority at almost the same level, potentially reflecting the increased attention on systemic racism during 2020 that has forced institutions to rethink their policies.

“This report presents findings during a historic period as campuses managed the uncertainties of a global health pandemic and reacted to calls for social justice spurred by the murder of George Floyd and police violence against African Americans,” the report said.

Nearly 70 per cent of respondents identified the need to improve diversity at their institution. The survey results suggest that prioritising diversity looms larger for private universities and colleges than their public counterparts.

Furthermore, 56 per cent of respondents reported an incident of hate, including hateful speech, against minority populations on their campus over the past year. There were also signs that senior leaders may not be fully on top of issues of hate on campus, with senior administrators significantly less likely to report such incidents having taken place (46 per cent) than mid-level administrators (61 per cent) and faculty (57 per cent).

Institutions were also asked about the data they collect on race and ethnicity, revealing areas for improvement. While 93 per cent of respondents said their institutions break down graduation and retention rates by race and ethnicity, only 55 per cent do so for participation in high-impact, engaging practices and only 45 per cent for students’ learning outcomes.