US universities grapple with Covid-19 fallout
May 19 2020 01:43 AM

A big focus for colleges and universities in the US during the coronavirus pandemic shutdown has been on how students and professors are adjusting to the shift from campus life to online education. A newer focus is on seniors losing out on traditional graduation ceremonies and facing an uncertain future.
With this unprecedented year winding down, the focus will shift again, to whether the institution of higher education itself will require radical changes.
The first possible profound change has to do with the real possibility that the college financial model can’t survive the pandemic, as The New York Times has reported. Some unknown number of the two- and four-year colleges and universities now educating 20mn students in the US may not survive.
That’s due to the depletion of endowments of universities that have had to refund room and board – and cuts in state funding, such as the 10% reduction for the UC and CSU systems just proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. It also stems from the likely loss of many of the 1.1mn international students, most from Asia, who pay the highest tuition.
These students pay so much more than in-state students that one of UC leaders’ central responses to budget cuts in 2008 during the Great Recession was to nearly double out-of-state students as part of a long-term fiscal strategy. Forget about that now.
Between health and economic scares, the airline industry being upended, visa problems and dismal perceptions about America in the fourth year of Donald Trump’s presidency, this strategy isn’t going to be available to many colleges going forward.
But it’s not just foreign students reconsidering. The American Council on Education warns that up to 15% fewer US students will enrol this fall because of heightened financial and health concerns.
There is another spectre hanging over higher education as well: the possibility that students and their parents alike come to think the present system is broken. Colleges stay afloat because 44mn Americans have taken out $1.6tn in college loans, a staggering sum that is 50% larger than the credit-card debt of every American combined. Many new graduates leave campus owing $100,000 or more and have to grind for decades to pay off their debt.
Will this seem wise when an online college education costs so much less and keeps improving? Especially when 5G becomes more widespread, virtual classrooms are going to make today’s seem primitive. That’s the prediction of tech education pioneer Tal Frankfurt. The pre-pandemic norm of campuses with massive physical plants and parking lots may seem like relics if equity issues can get resolved.
This won’t necessarily be bad at all. Higher education could use some of the “creative destruction” seen in the private sector when new companies come along and supplant the old kings of the heap.
That’s not happening at colleges, which are driven by theories reflecting the needs of the 20th century. George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan has documented the great divide between what students learn in college and the modern job skills they now need. He says research shows the value of a degree from a prestigious university mostly comes from what it signals to potential employers, not necessarily because the university has improved its graduates’ critical thinking.
College is not just about going to class, of course. It’s about being on your own, interacting with peers, learning what you like and managing your time all while navigating both a campus and a community.
Does what is happening now portend a permanent shift away from campus living to virtual learning? What about labs? What about clubs or sports or activities? What about the cost? Time will tell, perhaps less time than you think. Officials need to start having existential discussions about what higher education will look like in the fall and in the future. – Tribune News Service

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