In these uncertain times, I am reminded of the life lessons I learned from my father. I saw him struggle, enduring layoffs as a welder with a middle school education, before he built a business as a janitor. He never allowed his three sons to worry or miss a meal, and he inspired me to show courage in the face of the unknown. That same heart is needed now more than ever in higher education.
As the president of Morehouse College, a liberal arts institution, I join my colleagues across the nation as we navigate a dark and unfamiliar path. The Covid-19 global pandemic has resulted in the loss of many lives and livelihoods. The impact is staggering: About 2.7 million cases of the disease have been confirmed worldwide and more than 190,000 people have died, including more than 50,000 in the United States, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. The economic fallout of the public health crisis is poised to eclipse the Great Depression with 26.5 million unemployment claims filed since March 14, and families in financial peril are wondering how they will ever recover.
On Friday, despite rising cases of coronavirus in Georgia, a segment of the business community will reopen. Under the governor’s authority, businesses like hair salons and tanning facilities, along with the trade schools that educate these service workers, will be among those allowed to welcome back customers. For business owners, the pressure is on to restore hope and profitability, but at what human cost? Covid-19 is still a highly infectious disease with no known cure.
Will institutions of higher learning fall in line behind trade schools and commercial businesses and reopen for the sake of rebooting the economy as more states relax their stay-at-home orders? College presidents across the country are grappling with this very issue. It’s like deciding whether to jump off a cliff without knowing how deep the water is below, or how far the opposite shore is.
What’s clear to me is that Morehouse would endanger its students, faculty and staff by resuming in-person instruction while the pandemic still poses a serious threat. We will not take that risk. Our decision is one that prioritizes the health and welfare of our campus community — and not one that will not be influenced by politics.
In late February and early March, colleges and universities nationwide made the decision to send students away from campuses and move instruction online. It was a collective effort to save our higher education communities from the threat of the novel coronavirus. Inviting faculty, staff, and students back to campus without widespread testing and a vaccine at the ready could unnecessarily put the lives of people in danger and devastate some institutions financially.
Some schools have already succumbed to the pandemic. Urbana University, a small liberal-arts institution northwest of Columbus, Ohio, announced Tuesday that it was permanently closing its physical operations due to financial pressures brought on by the pandemic. The closure affects 111 full-time employees and 1,254 students.
Other small institutions with tuition-driven business models, including some of the nation’s 101 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), could face similar fates. Between 2010 and 2018, enrollment at HBCUs decreased by 11%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. More than half of HBCUs have fewer than 2,500 students, according to the Pew Research Center.
HBCUs will share $1 billion in federal emergency funds to defray costs due to the pandemic, including the loss of summer camp revenues and refunds in room and board credited back to students who are sheltering at home. It will not be enough, however, to keep some campuses out of the red. To make matters worse, a potential second wave of Covid-19 infections could surge at the peak of the flu season this coming winter and further disrupt the balance sheets for HBCUs that are already in financial disarray.
Whether colleges open for in-person instruction in the fall of 2020 or expand offerings online until it is safer for faculty, staff and students to return in 2021, enrollment is expected to decline. The economic impact of Covid-19 will mean fewer families — especially black and Hispanic ones at the lower end of the household income scale — will be able to afford college tuition.
Given the pandemic’s widespread disruption, it is unclear how many students who are offered admission will enroll in the fall. This combined with an expected dip in the number of returning students and a decrease in the international student population — a segment known for paying full price and contributing tens of billions to the US economy each year — will almost certainly lead to budget shortfalls.
The unprecedented challenges of the fall 2020 semester will force liberal arts colleges with limited endowments to sink or swim under the troubled waters of financial instability.
In my two-plus years at Morehouse College, I have reminded our community on many occasions that while we cherish our rich traditions, change is expected. Our future depends on our flexibility.
Morehouse was already exploring strategies to help us grow revenue online before the pandemic hit. We developed virtual academic courses for students and discussed the once-taboo idea of offering former students the opportunity to re-engage and complete their degrees online at their own pace. We are now developing a menu of professional development courses and online programs that will be open to the public regardless of gender or matriculation.
Our first such endeavor, Momentum@Morehouse, will be an immersive coding school for career-changers and skill-seekers interested in software development that launches online in May. It offers high-demand computer programming instruction, along with coaching, connections with recruiters, and guidance on things like salary negotiations. Morehouse is partnering with Momentum Learning, a North Carolina-based coding academy, and Opportunity HUB (OHUB), a global, technology and startup platform based in Atlanta, for this new 12-week course.
Historically, a Morehouse education has hinged on living and learning on campus, where our students can experience a shared sense of brotherhood and a world-class academic program. The pandemic has forced us to rethink our definition of community and make the shift to building stronger online connections.
Now, between online classes, administrators check in on the emotional health and financial needs of distant learners several times a week to provide them with support, spiritual guidance and motivational talks. Our students have been giving us steady feedback about what’s working for them in their online classes and what we are getting wrong. I have engaged our faculty and asked for their recommendations on ways to streamline Morehouse so we can enter the new academic year nimble and ready to respond if a second wave of the pandemic hits.
I believe that Morehouse will brave these uncertain times and thrive for another 153 years — and more. We are driven by our mission, which is to develop men with disciplined minds who will lead lives of leadership and service. A Morehouse education has produced a steady pipeline of predominantly black men who learn under the expectation of excellence — an expectation that they will not only graduate and get competitive jobs, but also create jobs, and lead companies, communities, and nations.
At Morehouse, we are jumping into the deep end, and investing in our college’s success. I am so committed personally that I’m cutting my pay by 25% to support the cause, and I hope our alumni and philanthropic partners will join me in suiting up for the journey.
Editor’s note: David A. Thomas, Ph.D. is the president of Morehouse College. He was previously the dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, and has served as a business school professor at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania. His is the co-author of three books, including “Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience.” The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author.