Ohio University kicked a hornet’s nest over the weekend when they announced a mass layoff of 140 workers. While those workers are mostly non-teaching staff, professors and instructors have also received non-renewal notices.

Before the coronavirus reached American shores, OU wasn’t on solid financial ground. In March, administrators announced they needed to cut $26 million from the budget in three years and warned of staff reductions. Then, when the university had to shut down due to COVID-19, the financial situation became bleak.

The trouble in Athens, however, won’t be unique. Nationwide college shutdowns and statewide stay-at-home orders have made cuts inevitable at many, if not most, colleges. Students and professors angry about staff firings may save some professors’ jobs, but higher ed will shrink more before it will grow again. The reductions will hit professors and administrators alike.

Rural colleges—both public and private—will struggle the most from the financial effects of the coronavirus. If schools don’t close their doors for good, many might reduce the majors they offer or drop secondary programs (anything from student services to weak sports programs) that don’t focus on their core mission.

Yet, the difficulty for rural colleges also gives them an opportunity. Community colleges have the chance to improve connections with local employers and attract students who would otherwise study farther away from home.

“A lot of students are not wanting to leave their region anymore because of how this has impacted our daily lives,” said Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association. Schools have the chance to “pick up students who may have left, but now they’re gonna stay closer to home.”

Until those students return to campus, colleges need to cut costs.

“The majority of the institution’s operational costs are in its employees, which requires the university to make extremely difficult decisions regarding our workforce, including today’s action,” OU spokeswoman Carly Leatherwood told the Athens News. Leatherwood isn’t wrong, but most of the costs to universities come from non-instructional sources.

OU’s professors, unsurprisingly, have opposed instructor layoffs and want to see the administrative bureaucracy and athletics budget cut down instead. “Since 2010, the number of regular administrators per student has shot up by 45 percent, an increase from around 800 to currently more than 1,190,” OU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors noted in a November 2019 budget analysis.

Professors don’t make budget decisions, however. Administrators do, and they usually don’t like firing the people they supervise (though OU has made some administrative cuts as well). Who gets to decide what people and programs will be let go will be a recurring tension for rural colleges.

Avoiding hard decisions is not an option. Colleges won’t be spared thanks to emergency funding from state governments. For one, state governments don’t have the money to save every college. More importantly, as health care costs have risen, funding health care instead of higher ed has taken priority. To take Ohio as an example, Medicaid and Health and Human Services spending comprises 45 percent of its 2020 budget, and K-12 education comprises another 15 percent. Higher education spending is much lower—3.6 percent.

College graduates, on average, are wealthier than the general population. State legislatures are unlikely to divert more funding during a recession so that colleges don’t have to trim the fat.

To survive, colleges need to “make bigger cuts in certain areas to strategically invest in key areas,” as Paul N. Friga wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “There are probably parts of your priority areas that could be trimmed (like low-impact research areas or low-enrollment academic programs), but I recommend finding ways to invest in your core mission.”

Though Ohio University has been criticized for letting go of African American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies professors, it’s probably the right move to protect other programs. Ohio State University, only 80 miles away, has one of the largest WGS programs in the country; it makes more sense for OU to invest in other programs.

A college can’t be all things to all people. Platitudes about college as an engine of economic growth or a way to shape students into responsible citizens sound nice in college brochures, but they aren’t always true. How many colleges does a state system need? Should the legislature fund a dozen English programs, or eight? Does it make more sense to cut funding for community colleges or four-year schools? College leaders, and state representatives, will have to answer those questions.

Rural colleges, then, must rescue themselves. They might need to cut academic programs, athletics programs and administrators. Or they might need to merge or share services with another school. With an eye toward the common good, they might need to accept the necessity of closing down so that other colleges can survive.

Some colleges might even turn a negative shock into positive growth. Leaning on their strengths, a school like Washington State Community College in Ohio can pull in students with its nursing program, which has a 100 percent job placement rate. The apprenticeship programs available at North Carolina community colleges could also grab the attention of students who would otherwise go elsewhere for an education.

“There needs to be a shift in how we look at training folks for our region,” Pratt said. “I do think that community colleges and the trade schools could come out as a big winner in this as well…streamlining is gonna be a definite part of this as we move forward.”

Getting rid of underperforming colleges that left students with a lot of debt and few job prospects should be recognized as a boon. Losing them is trimming the fat off a bloated education sector while redirecting funding to better schools. Closing down low-performing schools, such as public colleges that produce many more dropouts than graduates or cosmetology schools that leave students stuck in debt, is a blessing in disguise.

In some ways, Ohio University is better off than most rural colleges. Enrollments have declined in recent years, but its undergraduate population has stayed around 17,000 students. It might lose branch campuses, sports programs, or struggling academic programs in the worst-case scenario, but it will probably survive. That’s more than can be said for many rural colleges that are much smaller and more dependent on tuition revenue.

“There’s a lot of questions here that I think universities are going through right now, and they’re trying to figure this out—and there’s just not an answer,” Pratt said. The big question is how rural colleges can survive in this uncharted territory.

This article was originally published by expatalachians. 

Anthony Hennen is managing editor of expatalachians and managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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