The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have taken a heavy toll on higher education’s summer term this year. According to data on Federal Student Aid (FSA) Direct Loans disbursed between April 1 and June 30, all three sectors of higher education in the United States—public colleges and universities, private nonprofit institutions, and for-profit colleges—showed a large decrease in student loan volume compared to the previous summer (see Table 1).

Earlier in the year it looked like for-profit colleges might be on track for an increase in loans—a worrisome trend in a sector where student outcomes are often poor and where large, primarily-online institutions seem well-positioned to capitalize on a pandemic. Instead, the summer quarter appears to have erased any gains the for-profit sector might have been on track to make.

Summer Quarter Student Loan Volume by Sector, and Change, 2018–20
Summer 2018 Summer 2019 Summer 2020 Change 2018 to 2019 Change 2019 to 2020
Private Nonprofit $6,967,374,778 $7,053,179,541 $4,058,852,146 1% -42%
For- Profit $5,046,149,033 $4,973,538,610 $2,668,534,085 -1% -46%
Public $4,238,294,064 $4,199,099,635 $2,507,595,478 -1% -40%
Total $16,251,817,875 $16,225,817,786 $9,234,981,709 0% -43%
Source: Author’s analysis of Federal Student Aid program volume reports. Foreign institutions are not included.

Student loan volume data are released and updated by Federal Student Aid four times a year. As such, these data are updated more frequently and more promptly than any other comprehensive and publicly available source of data on the finances of higher education institutions. In the current pandemic, this makes student loan volume data a potential canary in the coal mine as an indicator that can be monitored long before institutions report enrollment or budget data to the federal government via the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). However, a few factors limit the precision of these data:

  1. After data are initially reported, Federal Student Aid updates the loan volume report for any given quarter over the following two years, as data are adjusted for late disbursements, cancellations, delayed reporting, or other matters. These adjustments are typically small, but during the current pandemic, the data may be more volatile than usual.
  2. Student loan volume data provide an incomplete picture of the income of higher education institutions. Even institutions highly dependent on student loan dollars also rely on other sources of income. Furthermore, some student loan dollars disbursed by institutions are returned to students for living and academic expenses that are not paid to the institution.
  3. The student loan volume data cannot provide an accurate count of the number of enrolled students receiving loans, because the data reported are for number of loans, not number of students. Many students receive more than one type of loan in a quarter or academic year, and thus the number of loans disbursed does not correspond exactly to the number of students who received loans.

Despite the limited ability of student loan volume data to describe the finances of higher education institutions in real time, the magnitude of the drop in student loan volume from the summer of 2019 (the fourth quarter of the 2018–19 academic year) to the summer of 2020 (the fourth quarter of the 2019–20 academic year) suggests that many higher education institutions may have suffered substantial—and in some cases drastic—decreases in their enrollments and/or income this summer. In total, American higher education institutions appear to have disbursed about $7 billion less in federal student loans in summer 2020 than they did in summer 2019. For-profit colleges saw their student loan volume cut nearly in half this summer, with private nonprofit institutions and public institutions not far behind (see Table 1). Drops occurred across all types of federal student loans: undergraduate, graduate, and parent PLUS.

The magnitude of the drop in student loan volume from the summer of 2019 to the summer of 2020 suggests that many higher education institutions may have suffered substantial—and in some cases drastic—decreases in their enrollments and/or income this summer.

The drastic drop in loan volume this summer appears to have resulted in a substantial decrease in annual loan volume in all three sectors, with the for-profit sector showing a decrease of 18 percent in student loan volume compared to the 2018–19 academic year (see Figure 1). In recent years, for-profit institutions have disbursed more student loan dollars during the summer than in any other quarter—in 2018–19, the summer quarter loan volume made up 45 percent of their annual loan volume. At the public and private nonprofit institutions, summer quarter loan volume is a smaller portion of annual loan volume—10 percent and 20 percent, respectively. As such, this summer’s big drop in loan volume may be particularly significant as a portion of annual income at for-profit colleges.


Loan volume data would seem to indicate that summer enrollment may have been drastically reduced at some institutions. For instance, between summer 2019 and summer 2020, the amount of federal Direct Loans disbursed by the University of Washington appears to have dropped from about $96 million in summer 2019 to about $5 million in summer 2020, a decrease of 95 percent. Likewise, Columbia University saw its summer student loan volume drop from about $61 million to about $8 million, a decrease of 87 percent. Decreases at major online and for-profit institutions are also substantial, given that those institutions tend to disburse a large portion of their total student loan volume during the summer (see Table 2). For instance, the University of Phoenix saw their summer loan volume drop by 48 percent; a substantial financial hit when you consider that in 2018–19, their summer quarter accounted for just over half of their total annual loan volume.

Change in Summer Quarter Loan Volume, Selected Institutions, 2019 to 2020
Name State Control Summer 2019 Summer 2020 Change Summer Portion of 2018–19 Volume
Grand Canyon University AZ For-Profit $412,252,322 $253,099,216 -39% 46%
Walden University MN For-Profit $387,106,772 $201,196,161 -48% 48%
Southern New Hampshire University NH Private Nonprofit $262,905,525 $134,949,706 -49% 36%
Liberty University VA Private Nonprofit $239,620,413 $201,303,863 -16% 35%
Arizona State University AZ Public $64,491,845 $59,784,058 -7% 9%
New York University NY Private Nonprofit $49,040,815 $41,162,661 -16% 7%
University of Phoenix AZ For-Profit $339,508,626 $177,562,810 -48% 52%
Strayer University DC For-Profit $264,992,160 $150,397,095 -43% 47%
Nova Southeastern University-Davie FL Private Nonprofit $144,608,842 $140,107,383 -3% 26%
Western Governors University UT Private Nonprofit $241,986,132 $128,052,829 -47% 46%
University of Southern California CA Private Nonprofit $104,389,296 $87,200,277 -16% 20%
Pennsylvania State University PA Public $27,573,418 $13,481,360 -51% 5%
Capella University MN For-Profit $133,182,360 $112,069,075 -16% 29%
Midwestern University IL Private Nonprofit $257,457,479 $66,248,392 -74% 58%
Rutgers University NJ Public $46,092,871 $22,736,520 -51% 12%
Temple University PA Private Nonprofit $44,749,783 $23,718,011 -47% 12%
Chamberlain University IL For-Profit $141,752,372 $65,760,281 -54% 39%
University of Washington WA Public $96,134,957 $5,251,862 -95% 26%
St. George’s University School of Medicine FC Foreign $39,091,523 $71,641,844 83% 11%
Michigan State University MI Public $55,609,265 $48,692,782 -12% 16%
Ohio State University OH Public $91,758,411 $29,749,742 -68% 27%
Purdue University Global IN Public $141,157,234 $102,139,930 -28% 45%
Columbia University NY Private Nonprofit $60,665,640 $7,988,402 -87% 19%
University of Minnesota – Twin Cities MN Public $29,367,865 $26,652,823 -9% 10%
George Washington University DC Private Nonprofit $28,083,568 $19,677,002 -30% 10%
Texas A&M University TX Public $20,300,711 $13,111,024 -35% 7%
University of Cincinnati OH Public $35,237,161 $31,859,977 -10% 13%
Georgetown University DC Private Nonprofit $33,134,430 $20,047,397 -39% 12%
Ashford University CA For-Profit $141,313,522 $62,844,221 -56% 53%
University of Arizona AZ Public $13,813,725 $10,730,291 -22% 5%
Colorado Technical University CO For-Profit $113,980,827 $64,767,850 -43% 44%
Florida International University FL Public $54,671,593 $50,612,804 -7% 21%
University of Texas – Austin TX Public $17,321,984 $10,142,291 -41% 7%
Boston University MA Private Nonprofit $30,889,212 $14,017,451 -55% 12%
University of Pittsburgh PA Public $11,297,360 $8,985,822 -20% 5%
University of Illinois At Chicago IL Public $28,953,609 $26,794,955 -7% 12%
University of Michigan MI Public $19,509,777 $20,016,214 3% 8%
University of Central Florida – Main Campus FL Public $54,508,278 $26,571,821 -51% 22%
University of South Carolina – Columbia SC Public $11,876,427 $12,468,987 5% 5%
Medical University of South Carolina SC Public $56,796,746 $24,439,012 -57% 57%

Note: This table represents the forty institutions with the greatest student loan volume in academic year 2018–19.

Source: Author’s analysis of Federal Student Aid program volume reports.

It is possible that subsequent adjustments to FSA’s loan volume report for the fourth quarter of the academic year 2019–20 will include greater loan volume and result in a less dramatic picture of the decrease in loans disbursed this summer. But even if that is the case, the observed decreases seem likely to have been real and substantial. During the Great Recession, higher education enrollment and student loan volume surged, especially at for-profit colleges and community colleges, but the economic status and educational decisions of Americans may or may not follow that same pattern as the pandemic and its effects play out.

Even in a less extraordinary academic year, it might be foolish to predict how a fall term will look by examining the summer term. In 2020, as the pandemic confounds educational institutions at all levels, it seems pointless to try. But it’s important to note that the fall quarter is typically a much more important quarter than summer for public and private nonprofit institutions on a traditional academic calendar. Many of those institutions are already experiencing disruption to their fall terms as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A comprehensive picture of the financial status of those institutions is unlikely to be immediately apparent in any data source, though student loan volume may provide the most immediate hints when data for the fall quarter become available.

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