In two weeks, the future of college has become uncertain, thanks to coronavirus

In the span of roughly two weeks, the American higher education system has transformed. Its future is increasingly uncertain.

Most classes are now being held online, often for the rest of the semester. Dorms are emptying across the country. Some universities are even postponing or canceling graduation ceremonies scheduled months out. This is all the more surprising given most universities have a reputation for being reticent to change, especially in a short amount of time.

The coronavirus has changed all that. As of Thursday evening, the number of U.S. cases stood at more than 14,200, with 205 deaths.

Colleges have tried to react quickly to enact measures that would help to stop the virus’ spread. On America’s campuses, professors and students, many of them international, work in close proximity for long periods of time. Dorm rooms are often shared between multiple individuals, making social distancing next to impossible. All of those changes could threaten colleges’ existence. Parents and students are demanding refunds for shortened semesters in the dorm. The value and quality of an elite college education is under scrutiny as universities pivot to makeshift online classes. And it’s unclear how students will view colleges once the crisis is over and they’re welcomed back on campuses.

Colleges were already in the red

Moody’s on Wednesday downgraded its 2020 outlook for higher education from “stable” to “negative.” The credit rating agency cited increased costs associated with the sudden shift to online classes and potential loss of revenues tied to student enrollment and tuition money. Plus, Moody’s said, colleges are less able to rely on their endowments as a fallback, since markets are plunging. Money was already tight at schools fighting declining enrollment.“Just over 30% of public universities and nearly 30% of private universities were already running operating deficits,” said Michael Osborn, a vice president who monitors universitiesat Moody’s.

On Thursday, groups representing American colleges called on the federal government to support universities as Congress considers coronavirus aid. They asked for emergency financial aid to students and universities, access to zero-interest loans for colleges and money to support digital learning.

Amid the unprecedented interruptions, some students and universities already have hosted slimmed-down graduation celebrations of their own. Students at the University of Michigan even took the traditional cap-and-gown photos on a mostly empty campus. And at Earlham College in Indiana, students hosted an impromptu graduation ceremony before they went home for Spring Break.