Higher education – an already beleaguered sector – changed overnight due to the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. The pandemic has multiplied the smaller disruptions that have been occurring over the last two decades hundred-fold. While universities will re-open eventually and campuses will be full of students again, it will not be business as usual. Certainly, returning and matriculating students will bear significant challenges due to the pandemic.

The Center for Strategic Philanthropy reached out to several higher education experts to ask their perspectives on the most pressing issues students and universities will experience in the coming months and to understand their thoughts on how and where philanthropy may be most impactful.


  • Dr. Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
  • Dr. Carla Chugani, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine
  • Dr. Deborah Donahue-Keegan, Associate Director, Tisch College Initiative on Social-Emotional Learning and Civic Engagement, Tufts University
  • Dr. David Scobey, Director, Bringing Theory to Practice, Association of American Colleges and Universities
  • Student Voice, a compilation of Tufts University students representing a range of social identities

Q: What do you anticipate will be the most significant challenges students will face from a well-being or mental health perspective?

Dr. Bridget Burns: Leaving campus and transitioning to distance learning means students who are accustomed to immersive, in-person instruction and academic community are likely to feel disoriented and isolated. Isolation and limited support may be particularly challenging for first-generation students, low-income students, and students of color returning to home communities that may have lower college-going rates.

Dr. Carla Chugani: We could see increased anxiety, depression, adjustment issues, and possibly PTSD, especially for students who experienced housing instability and/or food insecurity as a result of campus closures. During times of disaster, sexual and domestic violence can also occur more frequently, so we may have students coping with these experiences as well.

Dr. Deborah Donahue-Keegan: Students will need higher education campuses to operationalize social-emotional learning and well-being practices. Given that pandemic realities compounded already complex 21st century demands, we need to work across the university system to provide quality professional development that fosters and leverages social-emotional learning for educational equity.

Dr. David Scobey: Students’ primary connection to their learning communities has been thinned out to screen connections with their course instructors, who are themselves struggling with their personal, family, and financial stressors. And students’ practical anxieties—about immediate finances, access to jobs and pay, academic standing and progress, and future prospects in the face of the pandemic—are all themselves causes of social-emotional distress.

Q: What do you anticipate will be the most significant challenges students will face from an academic perspective?

Chugani: I anticipate that some students will need to repeat classes. Some subjects are not well-suited to being taught online and it may be very frustrating for students to have to take extra time to repeat these courses.  Graduate students who missed opportunities to complete field placements and clinical training/practicum may also have their progress toward graduation delayed.

Scobey: It is a particular academic challenge to provide students with access to “high-impact practices” (HIPs) such as community-based learning, experiential learning and internships, which we know are the most effective settings for deep, transformative learning.  Faculty are creatively experimenting with ways of delivering “HIPs at a distance,” but the conditions of sheltering in place and remote teaching make this very difficult.

Q: What do you anticipate will be the most significant challenges students and institutions will face from a financial perspective?

Burns: University budgets are already fragile, and many are highly dependent on tuition and fee revenue. Institutions are going to face dramatic declines in tuition and fee revenue and massive increases in technology costs. If we head into a long recession, state appropriations to public universities are likely to fall; state support of universities tends to decline during these times, when governments prioritize other areas like social services.

Chugani: Unemployment is an issue which our country will face and college students are no exception to this. If the availability of jobs that can be done while in school is lower than normal, we may see more students struggle with food and housing insecurity.

Scobey: The majority of college students live on the edge of financial insecurity (if not over the edge). I’m worried that the pandemic will be the final straw that drives many students into stopping-out, and then defaulting on their loan debt.

Student Voice: In the current state, people are obviously not hiring, and no one knows the long-term damage to the economy. Worries that it will be next to impossible to find a job and start my career have been weighing heavily on my mind.

Q: What role can philanthropy play?

Burns: Funders can provide flexible emergency funds that institutions can distribute to students who are facing financial hardship and struggling to continue their studies. Unrestricted operating grants are incredibly helpful. The costs and implications of this crisis will reveal themselves in waves over time; we need to invest in infrastructure, technology, and emergency student aid that institutions can use to meet the needs that arise on their campus.

Chugani: It's really important for philanthropists to work hard at understanding what the particular community need is in their local area and focus most resources in that area - even if it is not a particular area of "passion" for them under normal circumstances.

Donahue-Keegan: Institutional funding in the area of social-emotional learning remains primarily focused on K-12 programs.  Philanthropy — from individual donors to institutional funders — has a key role to play in institutionalizing SEL in postsecondary education, pulling the thread of SEL research and practices into higher education.

Scobey: Philanthropy has a crucial role to play in fostering positive paths forward — paths led not by external ‘disrupters,’ but by innovative practitioners already at work within higher ed — and pushing against negative models of change.

Our experts underscored that now, more than ever, students need to have their well-being supported in the university environment. Students’ financial and academic needs, and their social-emotional needs are inextricably linked and must be addressed simultaneously. In the last few weeks, we have seen philanthropies lower the barriers to accessing capital, provide unrestricted support, and fund operational expenses – these same practices should apply in the higher educational context.


By Mali Locke, Director, and Glorimar Barrios, Associate, Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy.