Colleges and universities are bracing for significant disruptions to their day-to-day operations from the coronavirus that could affect how they teach, what programs they offer in the summer, and how many international students enroll on campus in the fall.
On Thursday, Harvard University announced that it had barred all travel by students and faculty to mainland China and South Korea, except in rare circumstances approved by its top leadership.
Northeastern University asked its faculty and staff to fill out a survey on how they would work remotely, if necessary, so that officials could plan for technology needs. Northeastern also told its faculty to start preparing to teach classes online, in case classroom teaching has to be halted.
“The time to prepare is now,” Kenneth W. Henderson, Northeastern’s chancellor and senior vice president for learning, wrote to faculty and staff in a message Thursday. “The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak requires Northeastern University to be prepared and resilient to ensure learning and business continuity in the event that students, faculty and staff may not be able to come to campus or attend classes in person.”
There is also growing fear at many institutions that as a result of the near lockdown in some parts of China, there may be fewer Chinese students prepared to come to the United States in the fall. US colleges and universities are in the midst of their admissions cycle and will soon be locking in students for the next school year, but they may not have the crucial English-language tests from Chinese students to determine if they are qualified. In China, large-scale testing has been postponed due to concerns that the virus would more easily spread when groups congregate.
Additionally, recruiters who help US colleges find international students have reported consulting with fewer students in China in recent weeks and expect to see a decline of those studying abroad.
China, by far, sends the largest share of international students to American colleges and universities, nearly 370,000 students in the 2018-19 school year.
“There’s a lot of hand-wringing because we just don’t know the future,” said Ben Waxman, the chief executive officer of International Education Advantage, a Boston-area marketing firm that helps academic institutions with their international branding.
Waxman expects that US universities will see some dampening in their international enrollments this fall, but they may take a more significant financial hit if quarantines in China last several more months and the virus spreads further across the globe.
“The reliance on one source for a large chunk of your students has always been something people have warned about,” Waxman said. “A virus was not on my radar, on why you shouldn’t rely on one country.”
Some colleges are developing backup plans, said Tom Dretler, the cofounder of Shorelight Education, a Boston-based company that helps recruit and manage the first-year international student experience for 22 US universities, including University of Massachusetts campuses, Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of California Berkeley.
Some institutions are waiving the traditional, standardized Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, and opting for newer, online proficiency tests, Dretler said.
Other universities are also planning to offer international students online classes for the first year, in case they can’t travel to the United States, he said.
Universities that “don’t have a contingency plan, they certainly are susceptible to a financial hit,” Dretler said. “If there’s no plan B, there’s no insurance policy.”
International students spend $43 billion annually in the United States, more than half in tuition, so the financial risk is significant, he said.
But Chuck Staben, the former president of the University of Idaho, said he worries that many universities are not doing enough planning to prepare for a situation in which students on campus may need to be quarantined, classes may have to be canceled, and international students may not be able to go home for spring break or over summer vacation.
“We often find ourselves underprepared in emergencies,” said Staben, who recently wrote a a column on the topic for an industry publication. “They’re waiting to see how it plays out. . . . It could be a bigger deal. What we’re seeing in China is months of disruption."
Most universities have been focused on their study-abroad students. Some have canceled their programs in Italy and South Korea, or have offered to bring students who are concerned about their safety back to the United States.
UMass Amherst, the state’s flagship public university, has canceled or suspended its study abroad programs in China and South Korea and on Thursday urged students to be careful about traveling internationally for spring break.
Emerson College warned its students and faculty against nonessential travel to China and South Korea, Italy, Iran, and Japan, and asked the community to inform the school of any international travel plans.
A handful of universities nationwide have taken out insurance policies in recent years specifically to protect them from a significant drop in Chinese students. Concerns about US visa restrictions, a trade war with China, and a potential health scare led the University of Illinois’s Gies College of Business to purchase an insurance policy.
The policy, which has been in place since 2017, kicks in if the number of Chinese students drops by 18 percent. The school has never had to use it, said Jeffrey R. Brown, the school’s dean.
“But we are keeping an eye on it due to travel restrictions,” Brown said. The business school is looking at delayed start dates for students, test waivers, and online capabilities, he said.
“It is absolutely not too early to be thinking about it because any contingency plan requires time to implement,” he said. “Even if the risk is low, it is worth preparing.”
Ultimately, the virus has the potential to change the way higher education is delivered across the globe, Dretler said. In China, where online learning has been slower to take off, more students and their families are now asking for the option.
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.