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Problems from pandemic could last for years: Global education expert offers 6 bold college predictions

Admission logjams, bankruptcies among issues for colleges due to COVID-19

Stock image/Maddie Meyer
Stock image/Maddie Meyer (Getty)

We’ve now entered May, but no doubt, the fall is already on the mind of many students, professors and administrators at college campuses -- and everyone likely has a myriad of questions and concerns.

What effect is the coronavirus pandemic having on school finances, classes and admissions, not only for current college students, but for juniors and seniors in high school?

What will things look like in the fall?

How will colleges not requiring SAT scores for students change the landscape of enrollment?

Allen Koh is the CEO of Cardinal Education, a California-based global education firm that provides consulting to current and future college students around the world on academic matters such as tutoring, test prep and college admissions. Koh’s insights on the college academic scene have appeared on and in media outlets such as CNN, HBO and The Wall Street Journal.

With the pandemic forcing colleges and universities to conduct virtual classes and creating uncertainty as to what will happen in the fall, Koh offered his concerns and predictions on a variety of topics pertaining to what the future holds.

Here’s what he had to say:

Some colleges and universities will go bankrupt.

“The number one impact this is going to have on colleges is that many colleges are going to go bankrupt,” Koh said. “That’s the first thing I’m worried about it.”

Koh said this is mainly true of institutions that don’t usually have a lot of donors or a big alumni base to rely on for help.

Koh added that while the summer is not normally a time in which institutions have a lot of students on campus, it’s still a profitable period because there is still housing that is being rented. He said that makes up about 2% to 10% of yearly income that’s gone with campuses closed until the fall.

“Universities can’t make money the way they used to,” Koh said. “Their endowments are dramatically weakened. Maybe about one-third they’ve lost. The need for financial aid is greater than ever and the capacity for donors to fill in that gap is disappearing every day. With that combination, we think that there are going to be a number of universities that collapse.”

Koh said it’s going to start a bad societal trend, because colleges and universities should be protected more than corporations since more college graduates usually means more corporations being created.

“This is how the dark ages start,” he said. “The methodical dismantling of the pursuit and distribution of knowledge.”

For institutions that do survive, there’ll be increased competition.

With unemployment skyrocketing and less aid available for institutions to hand out, Koh said that means more students will opt not to apply for private schools and instead, apply for less expensive public institutions.

In turn, Koh said, that will create a logjam of applications and incredible competition to get admitted, which could ultimately give children of big donors to an institution a bigger edge than usual.

“Because of that, the competition is going to be Darwinian,” Koh said. “People really need to start thinking about what special programs their state universities have available that give them a boost in admissions.”

Koh added that acceptance standards of many elite private schools will likely go down, as well.

Gap years are potentially a huge problem.

Whether it’s seniors graduating from college and wanting to attend graduate school, high school seniors who are about to graduate or just any college student in general, the term “gap year” has been thrown around more.

Basically, the thought is, if the pandemic is going to change the way classes are done for the next school year, why not just take a year off school to travel, work and then go back a year later?

This actually could be a disastrous idea with long-term repercussions, Koh said.

“Most universities, if they want to be self-preservationists, they need to immediately ban gap years,” Koh said. “If they do not ban gap years, this could be absolute anarchy and universities could collapse just based on that.”

If many students take gap years and then try to come back and apply a year or so later, there will be a bigger logjam of applicants and tough decisions that need to be made by universities, both from an admissions and a financial aid perspective.

It’s an issue that could have a domino effect and remain a problem for graduating classes years down the road.

Koh said the pandemic has left a lot of college seniors who all of a sudden have become interested in applying for grad school scrambling, because most grad school applications need to be sent in by December or January in a given year.

The pandemic started to fully grip the country in late February and March.

“If you’re a senior and you were planning on having a gap year and then applying to grad school, newsflash, your gap year just got blown up,” Koh said.

Trade schools could become a more desirable option.

Trade schools, or vocational schools, are institutions in which students learn a particular skill.

Koh said these types of schools are always good options, even without the pandemic causing competition for admissions at colleges and universities.

With the pandemic causing so much uncertainty, trade schools might now become even more attractive.

“Trade school is by far the best bang for the buck you can imagine,” Koh said. “It’s my hope that more people will go to trade school.”

Koh cited an example, saying that in Germany, many students skip college and go to schools where they learn specific welding skills and become affluent as a result.

“These people are making $150,000 a year,” he said. “We will produce the steel, ship it to Germany because they need to do the special welding, and then the whole thing gets shipped back here. We’ve given away our entire industrial base because we stopped educating the skills.”

Students will still need the SAT and ACT more than ever.

Yes, many colleges and universities are making SAT and ACT scores optional with applications in the wake of the pandemic.

But Koh said not to let that fool you: the SAT and ACT still will be vital.

It’s sort of like when an athletic coach says there are “voluntary” offseason workouts. They may not officially be mandatory, but you better show up if you want to play a significant role on the team.

“Colleges say they will be understanding of kids who don’t have the SAT,” Koh said. “I believe they meant it when they said (that). I also believe it will be completely irrelevant what they said, when they are evaluating tens of thousands of very competitive kids.”

There are two main reasons why SAT and ACT scores are so important for a college application.

One, SAT and ACT scores are essential for obtaining scholarships, so Koh said not having them will hurt applicants from poorer backgrounds who are in need of financial aid.

Two, having strong SAT and ACT scores can make up for holes or sore spots in an application.

Koh cited examples of how many high school kids don’t do very well during their freshman year due to immaturity, then recover and perform well for the remainder of those high school years.

But that freshman year still weighs down an application, and not having SAT or ACT scores on an application will be a big hindrance this fall and in 2021.

“These kids, they always had the SAT to save them,” Koh said. “It’s like (colleges say), ‘Wow, they had a great 10th grade, a great 11th grade and a great SAT. OK, the student was immature, grew up and now we are happy to take him or her.’ Now, they don’t have that. In many cases, they won’t even have 11th-grade second semester grades.”

Virtual classes in the fall are a probability.

Whether there will be in-person classes or virtual classes is probably the biggest question students, parents, professors and administrators are wondering at the moment, and one officials will attempt to answer in the next couple months, depending on how the virus continues to unfold.

Koh is of the belief classes will still be virtual even in the fall, a direction some institutions have already taken.

“I think the odds are tremendous it’s going to be virtual,” Koh said. “When you think about it, the number one asset any university has is its professors, and professors tend to be at the prime mortality rate (due to average age) for coronavirus. I think the professors would fight it and I think administrators wouldn’t need that much opposition from professors to agree. They know. Can you imagine one-third of all your Nobel Prize winners getting wiped out? You can’t risk that.”


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