Higher education responses to COVID-19 in the United States: Evidence for the impacts of university policy
With a dataset of testing and case counts from over 1,400 institutions of higher education (IHEs) in the United States, we analyze the number of infections and deaths from SARS-CoV-2 in the counties surrounding these IHEs during the Fall 2020 semester (August to December, 2020). We used a matching procedure designed to create groups of counties that are aligned along age, race, income, population, and urban/rural categories—socio-demographic variables that have been shown to be correlated with COVID-19 outcomes. We find that counties with IHEs that remained primarily online experienced fewer cases and deaths during the Fall 2020 semester; whereas before and after the semester, these two groups had almost identical COVID-19 incidence. Additionally, we see fewer deaths in counties with IHEs that reported conducting any on-campus testing compared to those that reported none. We complement the statistical analysis with a case study of IHEs in Massachusetts—a rich data state in our dataset—which further highlights the importance of IHE-affiliated testing for the broader community. The results in this work suggest that campus testing can itself be thought of as a mitigation policy and that allocating additional resources to IHEs to support efforts to regularly test students and staff would be beneficial to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in the general population.