College in the Time of Covid

Can campuses really reopen this Fall?

Covid-19 is not just a frighteningly contagious and potentially deadly disease; it’s a destroyer of paradigms. Industry after industry has had to reassess how and whether it will survive in what we ruefully call the new normal, and we’re all in the process of discovering how the most basic acts of living in our communities will be transformed.

Foremost among the institutions most drastically threatened by the virus is education, and higher education in particular. This last week, the New York Times published an opinion piece by the president of Brown University, Christina Paxson, titled “College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall. Here’s How We Do It”, in which she cites three reasons why the return of students to on-campus living and learning is a matter of national urgency.

First, colleges and universities rely on tuition to meet their budgets, and if schools remain closed this fall, they will lose a lot of it, with the result that some of them will fail. Second, she argues that if in-person learning is foreclosed, quality of learning will inevitably suffer, and lower-income students, some of whom may have difficulty accessing classes online, may postpone or quit college altogether. And finally, Paxson notes that colleges and universities employ a lot of people in their communities and graduate the employees of the future, and keeping them closed for another semester or two will wreak still more economic havoc both locally, and beyond.

These are all compelling arguments, not to mention the social disruption to students, their parents, and donor alumni who want nothing more than to see a return to the college life of 2019. But all this needs to be weighed against the potential disaster of gathering large student populations from across the country and the world and concentrating them on college campuses, some of which are located in communities not much larger, but much more aged, than their own. Paxson recognizes this, acknowledging that “administrators should be concerned not only for the students in their charge, but also for the broader community they interact with.”

But the methods she suggests to deal with these risks seem wholly impractical. The first would be, of course, testing; in this case, testing every student when they arrive on campus, and at regular intervals thereafter. Even if this were logistically possible by this fall given the current shortage of test kits, expecting undergraduates to comply reliably with a regime of frequent re-testing seems at best naive. Since many younger people will be asymptomatic carriers if they are infected, a test is only good on the day it’s administered. And by the way, it’s not clear what Brown would do with the students who test positive on arrival; send them back where they came from in the same planes, trains and automobiles they arrived in?

Positive test results would require contact tracing, which Paxson suggests could be accomplished by smartphone apps (query when or if these will be available), and quarantining. But of course quarantining couldn’t be done in dorms, where quarters are close and bathrooms are shared by entire wings of rooms. Paxson’s suggestion? Quarantine in hotels! Who is to pay for these extended stays, and why hotels would knowingly accept infected persons, goes unexplained.

Yes, Paxson says, even with all this, the campus experience would have to change. Masks would be worn by all, large lecture classes would stay online, and forget parties, spectator sports, convocations and concerts. In sum, it’s an anxiety-ridden, highly regimented, rather grotesque parody of what we think of as college life, and one that, even if practicable, would put the communities surrounding our colleges and universities at heightened and ongoing risk. There has to be a better way.

The higher education paradigm, and the value proposition underlying it, were under assault long before the current crisis. Covid-19 has only accelerated the reckoning. Tuition costs and resulting student debt have skyrocketed without concomitant increases in graduates’ earnings. For private colleges in particular, the admissions process has devolved into a Darwinian, algorithm-driven competition for a dwindling pool of applicants. And on many campuses, identity politics and its attendant cancel culture have threatened to make a mockery of the free exchange of ideas central to the concept of the liberal arts.

Economically, many private colleges are sized for failure, not big enough to benefit from economies of scale or to have amassed shockproof endowments (apart from the Ivies, which one wag recently characterized as “hedge funds that teach classes as a tax dodge”), but too big to change course quickly or avoid being hamstrung by their clashing constituencies.

From the student perspective, the current crisis may well have permanently demolished the prevailing myth of what going to college means and what it’s supposed to provide, glibly summarized by Masha Gessen in a recent piece in the New Yorker as “arrival at a Disney-Gothic castle; eight semesters, one of them abroad; two or three summer internships; [and] a festive launch of a lucrative, or at least secure, career.” Except for the architecture, every element of this scenario suddenly sounds like a wistful fantasy.

College campuses, designed to be interpersonally dense and “high-touch,” are perfect incubators for a highly contagious bug like Covid. And of course it’s a two-way street; it would only take a single student, bringing the virus back to campus from a trip to the local drugstore, for contagion to spread through a dorm floor, the library, a dining hall, the campus. Any scheme of delayed, staggered or shortened semesters, or cycling subsets of the student body through campus at intervals so as to allow for social distancing, would only increase the “churn” of vectors in and out of campuses and their surrounding communities. The absolute worst scenario would be to open up a campus in the fall, only to have to lock it down (whatever that means in this context) or close it up for a second or third time.

At least for this upcoming semester and, quite possibly, into next year, the mantra should be to take the college to the students, rather than bring the students to the college. Alumni and parents could be engaged to provide online or perhaps in-person internships for students where they and their families reside, which could proceed in parallel with a robust online class schedule. So-called gap years are not a bad thing even in normal times, and this might be the best possible time for a college-wide gap year for the colleges and universities that can afford it financially, and particularly those whose populations equal or dwarf those of the towns they’re situated in and are far removed from the large-scale medical facilities that would be needed in the event of an outbreak.

Just as other sectors of the economy are being hammered by the pandemic, higher education will inevitably undergo a great winnowing, with weaker institutions shuttering and those with strong finances and good brands surviving to pick through the rubble. But as we confront and work through that sad eventuality, administrators, alumni, and local officials need to think of their college not just as a discrete institution, but as an integral part of a much broader and more vulnerable community.



2 thoughts on “College in the Time of Covid

  1. State schools will survive- with tuition at 12k a year- its a bargain. And the ones that already have online as part of the curriculum , will be poised to scale easier than others. Students want to be out of the house- so maybe you don’t reside on campus any longer – but you can come and be in a class that has no more than 15 spaced out so you can learn and hear the diversity of other thoughts. Head home and the next day you may have an on-line course. Those OPM ( On Line program managers) need to be partnering with every school and the DOE needs to allow. Faculty may be the hardest to convince of this new model- as they act like collective bargainers as cover for “ Faculty Governance”. Yes, innovation occurs during difficult times and the state schools can pivot quicker than heavily burdened endowed schools charging 50k for tuition and have relied on international full payers to support the bottom line. Gee what will happen with all the marble buildings….

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