Discussion Paper

The Lingering Fiscal Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Higher Education

Abstract: The unprecedented challenges from COVID-19 present many institutions of higher education with liquidity, and even solvency, concerns. In this report, we provide guidance to institutions and policymakers about the short- and medium-term revenue losses that are likely to materialize as a result of the ongoing pandemic and associated disruptions to revenue and expenses. Using historical data on states’ responses to previous economic downturns and contemporaneous measures of the severity of the current economic predicament, we project state and local appropriation reductions that public colleges and universities are likely to experience. We then use these projections in conjunction with measures of the pandemic’s severity at the local level — mobility on campus and in local areas, consumer spending, fall 2020 enrollment, and more — to project likely revenue losses to institutions from appropriations and two other key revenue sources: net tuition revenue and revenue from auxiliary enterprises. We project that losses in state and local appropriations are likely to be about half the magnitude of losses in the Great Recession, or on the order of $17 billion to $30 billion over the period 2020‒2025. However, appropriations represent a relatively small fraction of the cumulative revenue losses from the three main revenue categories, which we estimate to be $70 billion to $115 billion over the next five years. The extent of revenue losses depends crucially on assumptions about the pace of economic recovery. We find that most public colleges, private nonprofit colleges, and rural colleges will experience moderate cumulative losses (no loss, loss 50% of 2019 revenue) among institutions with fewer than 1,000 students, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and certain for-profit colleges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keywords: higher education; college; university; appropriations; enrollment; tuition; revenue; budget; COVID-19; pandemic;

JEL Classification: I22; I23; I28;


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Bibliographic Information

Provider: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia

Part of Series: Consumer Finance Institute discussion papers

Publication Date: 2021-05-14

Number: DP21-01