Coronavirus puts the future of college — and colleges — in limbo

SAN FRANCISCO — Like so many college students who have seen campus life supplanted by a computer screen thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, Allie Larman faces a difficult decision about the fall semester.

Set to enter her junior year at the University of California, Davis, where she is earning a double major in community and regional development and Spanish, Larman returned to her parents’ home in nearby Albany, Calif., in mid-March, when Gavin Newsom became the nation’s first governor to issue shelter-in-place restrictions that put an end to in-person instruction.

Larman and nearly 40,000 of her classmates continued their education on Zoom, an online platform few had ever heard of before and that teachers and students alike have found to be a disorienting, two-dimensional substitute.

“I feel like I’m definitely not learning as much in my classes and I’m not having a very good time,” Larman told Yahoo News. “I really thrive off of being on campus. Seeing all of my friends in my classes really keeps me engaged. I like going to the coffee shop on campus and walking around. I like that routine.”

While Larman says that “the school did a really good job considering the crazy circumstances,” Zoom instruction isn’t what she bargained for, and she’s considering taking a leave of absence rather than return for another quarter of online offerings.

Online learning. (Svetikd/Getty Images)
Dozens of students and their parents have filed lawsuits against colleges and universities this spring seeking tuition reimbursement. (Svetikd/Getty Images)

“I’m not sure if it’s worth around $5,000 a quarter [the cost of tuition only, excluding room and board] to attend a Zoom university,” Larman said.

She’s not alone. Dozens of students and their parents have filed lawsuits against colleges and universities this spring seeking tuition reimbursement. But the question of value is even more pressing looking ahead. Last week, California State University announced it would hold most of its classes next year online thanks to the coronavirus. That means 500,000 students will have to decide, in Larman’s words, whether “to attend a Zoom university.” If polling on this question is accurate, that could prove ruinous for higher education. A recent survey conducted by the American Council on Education found that nearly 20 percent of students currently enrolled in college are either unsure they will continue in the fall or say they will definitely not do so.

And the academic disruption caused by the pandemic has sparked a debate about the future of higher education in America.

“Nobody knows what the retention rates are going to be in the fall,” Roblin Meeks, associate dean of graduate studies at Manhattan’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Yahoo News. “I think everybody is in a holding pattern. If Congress appropriates money for the states, then it won’t be as bad. It’s hard to know how much money the campuses are going to have to work with.”

John Jay, with 13,000 undergraduate and 2,000 graduate students, is part of the City University of New York, which receives approximately 60 percent of its funding from the state.

“There’s no school in the CUNY system that has a large endowment,” Meeks said. “Everyone is tuition-driven, so if a bunch of your students don’t show up, that’s really bad.”

It’s unclear when restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which hit New York harder than any other city in the world, will be lifted. While the president of the well-endowed Ivy League Brown University, Christina Paxson, foresees implementing rigorous coronavirus testing, contact-tracing cellphone apps and new social distancing policies in order to lure students back to campus, for colleges in the CUNY system like John Jay, making that transition is harder to envision.

“John Jay has 15,000 students and has essentially two buildings with 109 classrooms, and so we’re a commuter school with a vertical campus. Students have to take the elevator, which is usually packed,” Meeks said. “Are we going to have packed elevators? What about bathrooms? We don’t have huge bathrooms. Brown has different capabilities than CUNY does.”

That uncertainty means online instruction is likely to be the new normal at least through next term, especially at urban colleges where America’s economic divide is already apparent.

“The class divide is so stark and the need is so great for the students that CUNY serves that I think it’s going to be really rough for a while,” Meeks said. “There’s not going to be enough technology. CUNY has a lot of undocumented, first-generation, food-insecure students. It is one of the greatest social engines in the country.”

With New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo projecting a $13.3 billion state budget shortfall, and the possibility that students may not be willing to pay tuition for online-only instruction, schools like John Jay are potentially facing an existential crisis.

Scott Galloway, who teaches marketing at New York University, made waves in the educational community last week when he asserted that the value of college “has been substantially degraded” thanks to the sudden online migration.

“There’s the education certification and then there’s the experience part of college. The experience part of it is down to zero, and the education part has been dramatically reduced,” Galloway told New York magazine.

Looking ahead, Galloway envisions a dramatic shift in the way education will be delivered, with hybrid online and on-campus offerings becoming more entrenched and many lower-tier schools being put out of business. In their place, Galloway sees schools like MIT eventually enrolling a class of 10,000 freshmen through largely impersonal online offerings, an idea that doesn’t sit well with Audrey Bilger, the president of Reed College in Portland, Ore.

“When we talk about something being degraded, or what are students paying for, I really think that it’s a mistake to think of college as a product in that way,” Bilger said in a telephone interview. “We have amazingly talented faculty and a caring and connected staff who get up every day and try to figure out how to give our students an extraordinary learning experience. It’s really baked into the Reed model. Our focus really is on the academic program.”

Drawn by its small size, reputation for excellence and level of attention it gives to each student, Bilger became the president of the 1,400-student liberal arts college in the fall of 2019.

“I fell in love with what happens at a liberal arts college — the connectedness, the relationships, the attention to young people at a foundational stage in their lives,” she said.

Seven months into her new role, however, the pandemic struck and Bilger was forced to do the unthinkable, shuttering Reed’s picturesque campus and moving classes to the virtual world of Zoom.

Many professors at liberal arts colleges are having their first experience of online instruction, and the disorientation felt by their students is affecting them as well.

“When they’re on campus, they’re supported by the camaraderie of the learning community and being in a place where this is what we do together,” said Emily Barton, a novelist and creative writing professor at Oberlin College. “Once you scatter them, you don’t know what environment they’ve gone home to. Some of them are very comfortable at home — they’re welcome with their families, their families have enough room, nobody’s been financially impacted and they’re able to feed them and give them a good Wi-Fi connection without difficultly. Obviously that’s not the majority of students.”

Barton noted that her discipline of creative writing is better suited to online instruction than, say, a science course with a lab component. But even so, she misses the subtle interactions with students that don’t come across on a screen.

“When you’re in a room full of people, you can understand more about what they’re feeling. It’s difficult to parse that when you’re looking at what basically looks like a sheet of forever postage stamps,” Barton said. “But it depends on what the class is and how it’s structured in terms of how much value students are getting from it.”

Bilger said that while the current plan is to return to in-person instruction in the fall, the college will “be guided by the safety and well-being of our students.” Ultimately, she said, “we are at the mercy of the virus,” and that means online courses could continue next year.

“We have resources to help us weather this storm,” Bilger said of Reed’s $579 million endowment, adding, “but we hope it doesn’t go on for too terribly long.”

Online only or not, Reed won’t be lowering tuition next year, and so far hasn’t seen a drop in the number of students who have preregistered for the fall, Bilger said. While she understands that many undergraduates may be tempted to take a semester or a year off, she thinks predictions of a mass exodus may be overblown given that global travel and business have ground to a halt.

“There aren’t lots of options for anyone right now in terms of alternatives,” Bilger said. “If students are taking a gap year, it’s going to be harder to do that in the way that we’ve thought of gap years in the past.”

But Meeks, whose son is a junior in high school, is less certain that starting college makes sense if you can’t actually set foot on campus.

“If my son got accepted to go to Northwestern or someplace that wants $75,000 but it was just going to be online, I would say, ‘Why don’t you just take a year off, or we’ll just do some online courses wherever we want,’” Meeks said.

Larman sees the logic of postponing returning to college until the experience at least partly resembles what it had been before the pandemic.

“I really enjoy college, and I want to save the time I have to make sure I do,” she said. “That might mean I can take a pause next quarter and save it for a better time.”

But schools like Reed, or even a huge, well-funded campus like the University of Michigan, which anticipates losses of up to $1 billion this year alone, can’t afford to wait for the dust to settle. They know that their survival at a time when revenue has disappeared will continue to be a struggle until public health officials sound the all clear. So while online instruction may not be ideal when compared with the in-person version, Bilger’s goal will be to make sure that Reed elevates it to a level worth paying for, at least in the short term.

“This pandemic has only strengthened my belief in the value of what we do and the relational quality of it,” Bilger said. “As we bring in our new class of students, if we have to be remote from one another, we’ll make use of available technologies and every tool that we can to ensure that students get that personal, connected experience right out of the gate.”


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