Liberal arts colleges face the full force of the pandemic

In the middle of the fall semester, the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage U.S. colleges and universities, with new towers budget cuts, program terminations, leaves and layoffs taking place in institutions across the country. Estimates are now that national higher education enrollments have declined by at least 7% since the Covid-19 epidemic in the country. Private liberal arts colleges, including some of the country’s first small colleges, have been hit particularly hard in the past two months.

Having already slashed budgets by cutting maintenance costs, travel costs, and technology purchases, smaller colleges that feel the need have few places to turn except to downsize. These reductions have been substantial and there are many signs that a future where even more staff reductions will be needed.

Towards the end of August, Scripps College imposed partial holidays on 59 employees in its food and childcare services, reducing their hours to 20 per week until December 20. The college, a liberal arts school for women that is part of the Claremont Colleges consortium, was trying to cope with declining revenues and unforeseen costs approaching $ 20 million.

In September, after deciding to switch to an all-distance fall semester with very few students in residence, Smith College announced it would lay off 230 employees. In total, 48 employees were placed on partial leave and 182 on full leave. Some employees are on leave for this entire period, while others are only on part of it.

Also in September, Pomona College, another member of the Claremont consortium, has revealed plans to temporarily put 264 non-teaching staff on leave as part of its cost reduction linked to the pandemic. Pomona faces a budget deficit of over $ 37 million, or 21% of its overall unallocated budget. Almost immediately, 85 faculty members sent a letter administration demanding that the leave be canceled, but the administration has stayed the course with its leave plan.

“The duration and magnitude of this pandemic crisis has now forced a step that the College had sought to avoid,” said Gabrielle Starr, president of Pomona College.

Last week, Dartmouth College laid off or reduced the hours of seven employees in its campus services division. The cuts follow the layoff of 18 workers at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Overall, Dartmouth projects a deficit of $ 83 million for fiscal 2021.

This week, University of Doane (Nebraska) President Jacque Carter recommended the termination of more than a dozen academic programs, as the school struggled to cope with financial hardship caused by the pandemic. On the block were major subjects such as criminal justice, political science, philosophy, religious studies, film and media production, German, international studies, health and society. The Doane Honors program was also due to end.

“Recommendations to stop providing these programs only come after a thorough review of nearly 100 program reports written by faculty, categorized into quintiles by working groups and assessed by a review committee,” said the university.

A similar situation was brewing for Wesleyan University of Illinois where several programs in humanities – including French and Italian, religion, anthropology, American cultural studies – as well as three other university departments were targeted for elimination in the 2021-22 academic year. In addition to program cuts, nine full professors at the university were affected: two professors were transferred to other departments, while others took early retirement or negotiated departure dates within the next two. years.

The process of phasing out these programs began before the pandemic and was largely driven by the shift in enrollment of humanities students into more career-oriented fields not only seen in the Illinois Wesleyan. but in most colleges. Nonetheless, the continued pressure of the pandemic on the university’s budget contributed to a fiscal environment that helped ensure the demise of the programs.

On Tuesday of this week, a Senate faculty group at the Evansville University voted defiance of President Christopher Pietruszkiewicz. The motion was approved 13-2. It will now go to the entire faculty for a vote. The results are expected in the coming days.

The vote is the latest decision by professors who have called for more votes in university governance as the school conducts a curriculum review that is likely to result in job cuts. Professors expect budget cuts of $ 2 million to $ 3 million, which they believe will result in the loss of 20 to 25 jobs.


Small private colleges face several factors that make the financial consequences of the pandemic particularly severe for them. We are seeing new examples of these difficulties unfold almost every week.

  • First, with the exception of schools with large endowments, small residential colleges have fewer sources of income than large schools. Therefore, they depend to a greater extent on tuition and room and board costs, both of which have plunged this semester.
  • Second, first indicators are that private colleges are experiencing larger enrollment declines than public universities. The number of undergraduates at private four-year nonprofit institutions declined 3.8% this semester, compared to public four-year institutions with a slight drop of 0.4%.
  • And finally, small colleges continue to try to cope with the flight of humanities students, forcing them to reassess and possibly reorganize the study programs that have historically been their calling card and that have been the main province. of their main faculty.

About Hannah Schaeffer

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