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  • Writer's pictureValentin Vassilev

Covid-19: Mid- and Long-Term Implications for Higher Education

Implications and possible solutions.

McKinsey & Company has recently published an analysis designed to help higher-education leaders respond to the medium- and long-term implications for teaching, learning, the student experience, infrastructure, operations, and staff. Although the analysis is focused on the US, the scenarios and advice are transferable to other countries.

McKinsey considers three broad epidemiological and public-health scenarios, including their implications and possible solutions.

Three scenarios

In the first scenario (virus contained), Covid-19 is contained in the next two to three months. In the second, more pessimistic scenario (virus recurrence), physical distancing and other restrictive measures last in some regions for several more months. In the final, most extreme scenario (pandemic escalation), the public-health response fails to control the spread of the virus for an extended period of time, likely until vaccines are widely available.

On the basis of these scenarios, McKinsey examines different ways in which the Covid-19 crisis could play out for US higher education. Then the consulting firm suggests how institutions could respond to the unfolding conditions in both the near and medium terms.


Teaching and learning

In the virus-contained scenario, McKinsey expects that most students will complete the current semester online, and the class of 2020 will graduate virtually—that is, without a formal on-campus ceremony. Faculty with little or no experience in teaching in this environment may struggle. Courses with a high level of hands-on components—such as clinical practicums—will be disrupted, and students in these fields may have to delay graduation to fulfil requirements.

In the other two, more pessimistic scenarios, most schools will be exclusively online through 2020 and into 2021.

Student enrolment, equity, and experience

In the virus-contained scenario, the main impact will be on persistence, as students and faculty will struggle to adapt to online coursework. Institutions with limited records of creating a compelling online experience could be hurt if their current students are dissatisfied with their digital offerings.

In terms of equity, lower-income students will suffer disproportionately. They are less likely to have the resources, such as PCs and high-speed-internet access, to enable them to succeed in an online-learning environment.

In the virus-recurrence and pandemic-escalation scenarios, international enrolment could be severely hit because of ongoing travel restrictions and fear. Both trends would depress enrolment. On the other hand, higher-education enrolment has traditionally increased during recessions.

Faculty and staff

In any scenario, faculty will be under intense pressure to develop and deliver online courses. Beyond that, cancellation of kindergarten through 12th grade could affect faculty members with children and compromise the availability of staff services. Mental-health resources could see greater demand.


In the few cases in which students remain on campus, they need to be kept healthy and physically distanced. Even when there are few or no students around, universities must continue to support faculty and staff. In both cases, campus health systems may be feeling the stress.


For most colleges and universities, Covid-19-related developments will put their budgets under pressure. In the virus-contained scenario, current-year tuition revenues will likely fall, given refunds for study-abroad programmes and the likely reduced persistence of students. Next year will likely see fewer international students enrolled. In the other two scenarios, the situation would be worse for both tuition and nontuition revenues.

What colleges and universities can do


Set up a nerve centre. An integrated nerve centre can help higher-education leaders plan and manage their response to Covid-19 by establishing work teams with specific areas of responsibility.

Near term (April to May)

Focus on students, financial resilience, and support of faculty and staff. Start by ensuring that students have all necessary assistance, including mental-health services, and that educational standards are maintained. Faculty should receive the support required to continue their research and to learn how to teach effectively in an online environment.

Medium term (June to September)

Focus on enrolment, persistence, and operations. Institutions should plan for the next school year. Establish a command centre to manage yield actively, particularly regarding students at higher risk of not enrolling, such as international and lower-income students. Universities should also consider whether and how to make significant changes to current teaching models.

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