Home Education Options COVID-19 and Why Reopening Schools Is Complicated (Part IV)
COVID-19 and Why Reopening Schools Is Complicated (Part IV)

COVID-19 and Why Reopening Schools Is Complicated (Part IV)


By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

This is the fourth of a five-part series examining the difficulties of reopening brick-and-mortar schools in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the previous articles, we referred to CDC data about COVID-19 in relation to primary and secondary schools and about the different risk factors that have impacted higher education over the last few decades. In this article, we will go over CDC data about COVID-19 in relation to higher education and how this pandemic, along with all other factors endangering higher education, might force some schools to close and move a larger percentage of them to learning online.

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Higher Education and COVID-19

Higher education has had a different yet somewhat similar experience with COVID-19 than elementary and primary education. COVID-19 hit in the middle of the spring semester, forcing classes to hastily move online. This feat was embraced by faculty around the country, and they and students did a truly astounding job adjusting to the new educational situation.

Some Schools Refused to Provide Refunds after Switching to Online Education

However, there were controversies. Initially, some schools refused to give students refunds for classes that went online in mid-semester, including the famous controversy at New York University. NYU refused to give their performing arts students tuition refunds according to a heavily criticized video by the Dean of the Tisch School of the Arts, in which she danced to an R.E.M. song. Although she explained her rationale for the dance and the song, student complaints ensued.

Most Schools Did Offer Tuition Rebates or Prorated Refunds

Beyond the bizarre NYU example, most schools did offer tuition rebates or prorated refunds for parts of the spring semester, to the detriment of their budgets. Throughout the late spring and into the summer, there have been many discussions about what might happen if colleges and universities did not open their campuses for the fall semester and instead opted for 100% online education.

“The math is not pretty,” Robert Kelchen, who studies higher education finance at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, told National Public Radio. “Colleges are stressed both on the revenue side and on the expenditure side.”

Some Students Have Decided Not to Attend College This Fall

As many campuses have been preparing to open, at the same time many have reported a percentage of students are deciding not to go to school this fall. At Harvard, 20% of incoming freshmen have decided not to start school, an astonishing number. If Harvard loses 20% of its incoming freshmen class, it’s likely that the number will be about the same for most of higher education.

CDC COVID-19 Data for College-Age Students

The number of COVID-19 cases for college age students is extremely concerning even as the number of deaths is extremely low. Below are the two main data points for the age range of college students:

  • 9% of the cases are in the 18-29 age group
  • 5% of the deaths are in the 18-29 age group

The CDC data does not delineate ages 18-23 and 24-29, so a full decade-plus is represented in this group. It would be nice to know if the traditional college-age students are similar to teenagers versus 30-year-olds, but using 18- to 29-year-olds can include graduate students as well.

The concern in the CDC numbers comes from the fact that college-age students have the most cases as a group, with the 50-64 age group a close second. But unlike the 50-64 age group that has a concerning death rate, the 18-29 age group has a small death rate of 0.5% or well under 1,000 for the entire country.

CDC COVID-19 Data for Faculty and Staff

Faculty and staff in higher education encompass a broad range of ages, anywhere from the early 20s into the late 80s with the average age of the college faculty between 45 to 47. Unlike K-12 education with a lower average age and in some jurisdictions a mandatory retirement age, college faculty can continue to teach well past 65, especially as adjuncts or part-time faculty and as emeritus faculty.

According to CDC data, 32.9% of COVID-19 cases were in the 30 to 49 age group as of mid-August, and 25.1% of cases were in the 50 to 84 age group. In terms of deaths from COVID-19, 4.5% were in the 30 to 49 age group, and 41.9% of the deaths are in the 50 to 84 age group.

The CDC data for the younger to mid-career faculty in the 30 to 49 age range is concerning but statistically not terrible. They have a large number of cases with the two groups combined, one-third, but their death rate is relatively low. The real risk to higher education emerges when you get to the 50 to 84 age range.

From data on faculty in higher education, you can see that over 50% of the faculty are between the ages of 50 and 84.

faculty ages
Chart created by Dr. Bjorn Mercer

COVID-19 Risks to 50-84 Age Groups

Faculty who teach and do research at colleges and universities are often older than their colleagues. College faculty do not often start their careers until they are in their early 30s and have their terminal degrees, so many faculty are really hitting their stride when they turn 50. COVID-19 is such a risk to higher education because over 50% of faculty are over 50 years old.

Returning to CDC data, the second highest COVID-19 cases by age group is the 50- to 64-year-olds, which is a major concern. These are people whose death rate, although the not worst, is 15.6%. If you then add in the older faculty — those who are over 65 — the number of cases for this age group goes down dramatically, but the death rate for this age group is unacceptably high at 26.3%. This puts the death rate for the 50 to 84 age groups at 41.9%.

Coronavirus Risks for Older Adults

Although there are a few faculty members who are 85 or older, it is assumed that anyone in this age range are relatives of the student, faculty, and staff. Below is the CDC data for the 85+ age group:

Cases by Age Group:

  • 6% of the cases are in the 85+ age group

Deaths by Age Group:

  • 9% of the deaths are in the 85+ age group

In the final article in the series, we will ask some difficult questions about reopening colleges and universities and the possible downstream complications that might arise because of the disruption to the 2020-2021 academic year.

About the Author

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. He writes about culture, leadership, and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.



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