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Lessons from the Coronavirus for Catholic Higher Education

Catholic colleges and universities reacted quickly to restrictions imposed to help contain the coronavirus. Now, what can we learn from the experience?


By Michael Hahn

Beyond the heartbreaking personal loss caused by the coronavirus, nearly every segment of American life has been affected since the end of January when the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the United States and the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic.

States and cities issued shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders. Bishops suspended public Masses. Major league sports teams cancelled or delayed seasons and games. Furthermore, millions of workers remain unemployed as the coronavirus has wreaked havoc on economies around the world.

Catholic higher education is not immune to any of these realities. Catholic colleges and universities quickly canceled face-to-face instruction and moved online. Most schools closed their residence halls and sent students home. Campus events, including commencement, were cancelled. While faculty and students adapted to this new learning environment to finish the spring semester, school leaders are now facing a future of unknowns, particularly as it relates to enrollment, budgets, and personnel.

The full impact of the coronavirus will not be known for some time. It is possible, nevertheless, to begin identifying lessons that Catholic higher education can learn from the crisis. The following list of observations is necessarily incomplete as the crisis is still emerging, but it may provide a starting point for Catholic colleges and universities to consider as they weigh scenarios for the fall semester and, hopefully, emerge stronger in the future.


The Value of Residential Learning

When schools decided to close residence halls, beyond the immediate stress of moving, students were disappointed to leave campus early. Most schools finished the semester through online instruction, but many students found this new format challenging without the support structures that residential learning provides. This suggests that students actually would not prefer to complete a four-year degree entirely online, even if it would be less expensive (many schools credited or refunded residential costs). As Catholic colleges and universities seek to differentiate themselves, especially smaller liberal arts schools, they may want to give attention to the value of their residential programs. This requires that schools develop new protocols to ensure student safety, as well as expand opportunities to help families afford residential costs.

Univ-of-Dayton Like many Catholic universities, the University of Dayton used social media to share messages of unity among its community amid social distancing.


The Necessity of Online Learning

Many Catholic colleges were able to successfully transition from in-person classes to distance learning within weeks, even if it also revealed areas where schools were not fully prepared to move online. In times of crisis, communication is key. This crisis, in particular, because of the necessity of social distancing, has exposed the need for online access and preparedness for students, faculty, and staff. Moving to online instruction in a time of crisis to finish a semester, however, should not be confused with comprehensive online instruction. Online learning, carefully planned and executed, can be as academically rigorous as in-person learning. It will be important for schools to track the data from faculty and students regarding their experience during this time so that the best aspects of online learning can be continued even when it is possible to return to in-person instruction. As schools expand their online offerings by choice or by necessity, Catholic colleges and universities might also need to explore new ways to convey their distinct charism in an online setting.


The Significance of Community

Relationships cannot be formed instantaneously during a crisis, especially a crisis that involves social distancing. The extent to which campus staff in academic affairs, residential life, financial aid, campus ministry, or counseling services were known to students before the crisis helped them and their families to find necessary support and answers. Furthermore, disappointment over the cancellation of campus events, especially for graduating seniors, suggests that these community traditions are not mere window dressing, but integral rituals that contribute to the college experience. It will require the creativity of staff and student leaders to develop new events and rituals to mark student achievements, even if it means celebrating at a distance or at a later date.


The Vulnerability of All Institutions

Even universities with billion-dollar endowments were forced to send students home and close their campuses; no school was immune to the devastating effects of COVID-19. In the field of higher education, the realities of loss, change, uncertainty, and lack of control might prompt us to question our confidence in enrollment projections, strategic planning, and sizeable endowments. We are now all more aware that circumstances exist that can disrupt our best efforts at forecasting and preparation. This acute experience of vulnerability can teach institutional humility, which prompts schools to consider other areas in which we are vulnerable, future scenarios that place our educational mission at risk, and, most importantly, new ways for us to practice solidarity within the network of Catholic colleges and universities.


The Reality that Some Colleges Will Close

Prior to the onslaught of COVID-19, several Catholic schools faced challenging enrollment and financial prospects. Depending on how long the crisis persists, some of these already-struggling schools will have no choice but to suspend operations, as Holy Family College in Manitowoc, Wisconsin announced on May 4. Possible declines in enrollment caused by fears of the pandemic resurfacing next year will only exacerbate the approaching decline in graduating high school students, which some higher education experts have labeled a “demographic tsunami.” A significant number of Catholic colleges and universities are tuition-dependent and the combined effect of refunding room and board costs, the loss of summer revenues, and market dips in their endowment put these schools in an untenable situation. Tragically, colleges and universities that serve families with the greatest financial need may be among the institutions that are most at risk of closing.


The Growing Need for Collaboration

For years, leaders in Catholic higher education have discussed the need for greater collaboration among their institutions. COVID-19 teaches us that we cannot keep kicking this discussion down the road. Smaller schools in particular may want to explore more carefully aligning themselves with larger, more financially stable schools that share their mission. Another option is for groups of smaller schools with similar missions to form strategic partnerships. Greater collaboration among schools is about not only more effectively stewarding limited resources, but also increasing service to students. For example, one small Catholic college in a rural area has successfully partnered with a non-Catholic university to form a joint organization for international students, which introduces students to a broader network of people and allows for enhanced programming than any individual school could provide on its own. Such an effort could serve as a model for future collaborations.


The Obligation to Protect the Most Vulnerable

All students are affected by this crisis. But students who were already most vulnerable prior to the crisis were perhaps affected most acutely. Students who were struggling with a physical or mental illness, those who did not own a personal computer or have access to the Internet, students who lacked transportation or a safe place to call home, and DACA recipients or students whose immigration status is otherwise in question are just some of the students who might require more attention as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. A number of Catholic colleges and universities established student emergency funds during the spring; many others doubled-down on efforts to reach out to students individually. Going forward, support of every kind, not only financial, but also personal and emotional, is necessary to assist students who are most in need. A meaningful example that requires only time is the professor who emails students over the summer to answer questions about their needs for fall planning.


The Responsibility Toward Employees

The harsh reality is, just when schools depend on the willingness of faculty and staff to be flexible and contribute more is also the time when schools will make difficult decisions regarding future employment. With the loss of revenue and projected enrollment declines, administrators have been forced to make difficult decisions, including not renewing contracts for term or adjunct faculty, furloughing other employees (especially those who depend on the presence of students, such as food service, transportation, custodians, and security), and instituting hiring freezes for new employees. In making and communicating these decisions, leaders of Catholic institutions should be cautious about overly corporate models of administration. Even the language of “essential” and “non-essential” employees, which has become ever-present in recent months, seems at odds with the dignity of all workers in light of Catholic Social Teaching.


The Case for Government Assistance

Catholic colleges and universities benefit local economies both as employers and by preparing future employees. Catholic schools also serve as local hubs for culture, research, and the arts. As large publicly funded schools make their case for increased state and federal funding, Catholic colleges and universities must not be silent. The decentralized system of American higher education is unique; while this autonomy has resulted in a brilliant array of institutions, it can also cause schools to consider their institutional needs in isolation. In March, Congress passed the CARES Act, which included $14 billion for higher education, but even this significant amount will not be sufficient to support all higher education institutions, depending on the severity and duration of the crisis. Catholic institutions should be prepared to advocate not only on behalf of their students and institutions, but also to protect the entirety of American higher education.


The Consequence of Setting Institutional Priorities

At the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic year, no administrator expected to respond to the effects of a global pandemic. Beyond the immediate decisions to send students home, cancel events, and begin online learning, COVID-19 forced Catholic colleges and universities to consider long-range planning. In the forthcoming months, campus leaders will certainly not face a lack of difficult decisions. The pressing question is: Will these decisions be made out of fear or guided by realistic, comprehensive, strategic, and values-driven priorities? Establishing a clear set of institutional priorities — informed by all and transparent to all — allows leaders to guide their schools through turbulent times.


The Centrality of Mission

Mere survival is not a worthy mission for American Catholic higher education. While the existential threat of COVID-19 forced schools to contemplate their survival, mere survival is not a long-term strategy. The etymology of “crisis” connotes a turning-point or decisive moment when decisions are made. As we continue to mourn the thousands of people who have died worldwide as a result of the coronavirus, the crisis of COVID-19 gives new meaning to the mission of Catholic colleges and universities as defined in Ex corde Ecclesiae to “help the Church respond to the problems and needs of this age.”


Michael Hahn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and the current Program Director of Character and Virtue Education at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota. His research focus includes the future of American Catholic higher education.