COVID-19: Survey Results for Higher Education

building a better employee experience
April 03, 2020

Mercer is a leading advisor to higher education with over 500 college and university clients across the US and hundreds more globally. Colleges and universities are unique environments, in some ways like small cities. The employees— faculty, administrators, staff and student workers — are employed in a wide variety of positions and represent five generations. The residents — students, on-campus faculty and administrators — live, eat and socialize on and near the campuses. Institutions are businesses with an important mission, but  feel more like tightly knit communities of faculty, staff and students. 


Higher education was one of the first sectors to be affected by and to react to the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, the challenge was dealing with study-abroad students returning from the early COVID-19 ‘hot spots’ of China and Italy. As the magnitude of the pandemic became clear, institutions quickly closed campuses and residence halls, cancelling events and shifting to online learning.


We started getting questions about the impact of COVID-19 almost immediately — at first related to issues about tuition reimbursement programs and travel assistance policies. We saw this as a great opportunity to be a market leader in trends impacting our clients and launched a COVID-19 spot survey specifically for colleges and university. We needed to act quickly. We reached out to our client network to better understand what information they needed to address the issues they were dealing with as the pandemic spread.


We leveraged client managers and relationship managers across Mercer, as well as our sister company Marsh and their vast network of higher education clients to distribute the survey. The responses were immediate. We received over 78 responses for the survey in three days. Responses came from a variety of institutions including four institutions from New Zealand. Responses also included large state and private institutions to smaller state, technical colleges and community colleges.


Highlights of the results are as follows:


Reductions in workforce

  • Over 50% of institutions have implemented or are considering a hiring freeze
  • Layoffs and furloughs are not prevalent — yet
  • Nearly all institutions have implemented a work from home policy (while common in other industries this is very unique for higher education)

Long-term implications from COVID-19

  • Nearly half expect closures or mergers 
  • Increase in virtual learning in the future
  • Acknowledgement that academia needs to be more agile in making business decisions
  • Most institutions are preparing for lower enrollments
  • Most higher education institutions are considering changes to current workforce, but the details will be worked out as things settle down

Handling job reassignments

  • Many institutions have not yet developed a plan for job reassignments and are reviewing on a case-by-case basis.
  • A number of institutions have formalized plans through HR or another office to distribute work more evenly. For example, events staff are being deployed elsewhere.

Other initiatives

We asked institutions to tell us what else they are doing. Here is a summary of their answers:


  • Faculty and staff
    o   Institutions are concerned about morale, and keeping faculty and staff engaged and informed.  Institutions listed the following: virtual Town Hall meetings with leaders, twice-weekly virtual assemblies, emails, robust COVID-19 website.
    o   A number of institutions have instituted pandemic/emergency response teams to specifically deal with this issue including increased involvement with the Board and focused research on a COVID-19 vaccine and regular incident-management team meetings.
    o    Pay continuation for all regular benefit eligible employees whether working or not, for the foreseeable future. Most are providing more-flexible sick time, vacation time, and the ability to use ‘negative vacation time’.
    o    Increased focus on mental health services and supports, including engaging EAP services more actively, adding telemedicine to the benefits plans, and allowing adjustments to the FSA dependent account if day care is closed.
  • Creative productivity
    o   Provided list of 10 key remote activities for people to work on while at home
    o   Provided burner phones for staff to check in with students potentially enrolling in the fall
    o   Flexibility to override and modify institutional policies
  • Students
    o   Assistance to students through pro-rated housing and meal plans, financial assistance for students who cannot afford to go home, housing for students who cannot go home, converting to online instruction
  • Campus
    o   Limiting access to campus to one entrance
    o   Taking temperatures of anyone entering campus
    o   Deep cleaning of all facilities