The simple reason why colleges are reopening

University of North Carolina students wait outside of Woolen Gym on the Chapel Hill campus as they wait to enter for a fitness class Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, just before the announcement for virtual classes was made.

(CNN)It took just one week into the fall semester for multiple Covid-19 clusters to emerge at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- prompting the school to send students packing and make classes remote.

UNC-Chapel Hill is not alone. Across the nation, many colleges and universities that have reopened amid a global pandemic have experienced a similar fate: They opted for in-person learning, with safety precautions in place, but were still hit by Covid.
Some colleges and universities have opted to stick to virtual learning. Yet, others have said they still plan on going forward with their plans for in-person learning, or do a hybrid model that consists of a mixture of in-person and remote classes.
And students -- some who are enthusiastic about being back, others who are worried about the safety risks -- are still showing up.
    Although states across the US are now seeing a decline in coronavirus cases, health officials have warned that "could turn around very quickly." Those outside these colleges and universities have wondered: Why are they taking the risk?
    The answer, according to education experts, is simple: their options are limited. They can reopen, and impose safety measures to try and curb the spread of the virus, or they can continue to conduct remote learning only, and risk financial devastation.
    Terry Hartle, who is senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, described the situation to CNN as "a perfect storm for colleges and universities."

    The big argument for going back

    In the early days of the pandemic, colleges and universities had to shift to remote learning as states began imposing mandatory stay-at-home orders.
    What they -- and many others -- didn't anticipate was how long the pandemic would last, and how quickly Covid-19 would spread. Lacking a nationwide mandate, many schools were left to figure out the rapidly changing situation for themselves, amidst external pressure.
    Suddenly, schools were losing billions of dollars off room and board charges alone -- and they were also saddled with additional costs of moving to online teaching, Hartle said.
    Darlene Genander loads up her vehicle as she helps junior UNC-Chapel Hill student Caitlin Sockin move out of Alderman Residence Hall in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.
    Other revenue also disappeared. Over the summer, for example, many schools are accustomed to hosting alumni events and other types of gatherings, Hartle noted. But all that auxiliary money evaporated as the world screeched to a halt.
    Meanwhile, the cost of keeping faculty and staff employed did not go down. And most colleges typically spend 60-70% of their budget on human resources, Hartle said.
    "The biggest thing colleges spend money on is faculty and staff," he said. "Laying these people off is not something anyone wants to do, because it's the equivalent of throwing away seed corn."
    This is arguably the main reason so many colleges and universities are pushing to reopen. A reopened campus means football games (a source of revenue), parking fees (one school, Hartle said, is losing $2 million a month in parking revenue), and -- of course -- housing.
    "We're not yet seeing widespread furloughs and layoffs, but if financial challenges continue, those I am afraid will be unavoidable."
    Every college is being affected differently, Hartle said. Schools that have already been seeing declining enrollment are the ones that may face an existential crisis. Public schools, at least, get a significant amount of support from the state government. Private schools get significant backing from donations and gifts.
    Still, the effects of the pandemic on universities are already visible.
    Stanford University, for example, offers its prestigious Stegner fellowship every year for creative writing. Typically, fellows have the opportunity to apply for lectureships after the program is over. This year, an addendum has been made to the fellowship's page: "Due to the pandemic, positions may not be available in the next few years."

    Remote learning, less earning

    Daniele Struppa, the president of Chapman University, told CNN that the pandemic has already taken a toll on the institution financially.
    The private liberal arts school, which is in Orange County, California, made the decision earlier this month to keep classes virtual for the fall semester.
    "While we continue to operate without guidance from Gov. Newsom, we need to provide as much clarity as we are able," Struppa said in a statement to the Chapman community on August 4. "Due to the high unlikelihood that in-person instruction will be allowed beyond the very limited activities ... we have decided to begin fall with remote instruction for all remaining Chapman graduate and undergraduate programs at both Orange and Rinker campuses."
    "This is not the news we wanted, nor the plan we have been working toward for the past several months," he wrote.
    The decision came after California became the state with the most reported cases in the US, with more than 650,00 cases and over 11,000 deaths reported as of Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Other schools in the state, including the California State University system, had also already made the call to cancel nearly all in-person classes through the fall semester to reduce spread of the coronavirus.
    But now, Chapman is looking at a deficit of upwards of $110 million, Struppa told CNN.
    Chapman University President Daniele Struppa is seen in 2018 in Orange, California.
    About 82% of Chapman's revenue comes from tuition and fees. Some students, Struppa said, are deciding to take a semester off or deferring their enrollment because they'd rather return post-Covid.
    Going remote also means the university won't make any money off of on-campus housing, which will cost Chapman a whopping $40 million, Struppa said. The school also spent over $2 million in new technology to enhance remote learning.