That strangeness, experts project, could in turn cause a massive drop in college revenue. Well-endowed colleges and big research schools have the savings to weather those effects. But many schools are beholden to semi-annual tuition payments, which are about to undergo the biggest shock since the Second World War.

The result could see the shuttering of many universities, particularly small liberal arts colleges, accelerating a trend of rising closures since the Great Recession. At the same time, experts predict, the drop off in demand will be temporary, as a prolonged recession sends millions back to school—resulting in renewed profits, and power, for the schools that make it through to the other side.

When 20 million college students return to school this fall, their campuses will look very different. Schools are considering shortened school years, smaller class sizes, and keeping classes partially virtual. In addition to social distancing measures, Purdue University will use its on-campus laboratory to test students and trace contacts. The California State University system will be entirely online through the fall—its University of California sister schools are expected to follow suit.