COVID-19 Will (Finally) Force American Universities to Reinvent Themselves

The COVID-19 pandemic’s full impact on higher education isn’t easy to predict. But it’s certain to extend past short-term decisions about whether to hold in-person classes during the coming academic year. Many universities may well be forced to lower tuition rates, as students balk at paying full freight for classes conducted by Zoom. As New York University business professor Scott Galloway put it in a magazine interview back in May, university officials who imagine that they will be able to charge last year’s rates for an even partly virtual experience are existing in a state of “consensual hallucination.”

The phrase gave me a chuckle. But this is no laughing matter. Trustees of George Washington University, where I’ve had the pleasure of both studying and teaching, signaled their sense of urgency in a May 18th email blast to the entire university community, wherein they described the COVID-19 crisis as “an existential threat to all institutions of higher education.” The trustees called on the administration to look “beyond minor changes,” and bear in mind that “the status quo is not an option.” Unfortunately, as illustrated by a scathing indictment of ineptitude at Johns Hopkins University recently published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, there are system-wide concerns about whether school officials are up to the task.

The impact of the pandemic on higher education will be stronger in the United States than in other OECD countries, because of (1) our system’s remarkably high level of quality stratification, (2) the increasingly corporate-style structure of universities, and (3) the extremely high cost of attending even mid-tier institutions. Galloway predicts increasing polarization between high-end universities that offer a residential experience for the privileged, and impersonal, mostly online education for everyone else, with a hollowing out of the middle. Big players, such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, in his opinion, will partner with the largest tech companies to create hybrid online-offline degrees, expanding enrollments drastically, taking in fully qualified students they currently do not have room for on their bricks-and-mortar campuses. According to this view, the top 50 universities globally are likely to be fine. But numbers 50 down to 1,000 will not. On the other hand, a lot of quality online education will be available to the masses of students seeking credentials from brand-name schools.

I never received a traditional American-style residential college education. But I was determined that my daughter would be able to have that experience. And so I hope that Galloway’s view proves to be overly pessimistic. Still, we should take a clear-eyed look at the reality of American higher education, not just the image that universities have successfully promoted over time. Pandemic-driven reform may have an upside. And we should be open to the idea that the current system isn’t the only one that can produce value for students.

First, we should acknowledge that the traditional image of the American college experience—years of intimate classroom instruction and rewarding social experiences, all on beautiful, well-manicured campuses full of historic buildings and spreading chestnut trees—was mostly a fantasy to begin with, and was becoming progressively more obsolete even before COVID-19 hit us.

In 2018, according to the Digest of Education Statistics, 5.7 million of America’s 16.6 million undergraduate students attended two-year institutions. Another 6.3 million were part-time students. Total enrollment, including post-baccalaureate students, in for-profit institutions seems to have peaked in 2010 at slightly over two million. But in 2018, the for-profits still had close to one million students, almost 740,00 of them undergraduates. Figures for 2017 detailing student age cohorts indicate that almost eight million undergraduate students were aged 25 or older, with 3.1 million of those over 35. In fall 2018, over 35 percent of students already were taking at least some of their courses through distancelearning methods. Few undergraduates actually live on campus. All in all, less than a quarter of American undergraduates are college-age teenagers or young adults experiencing the ideal of full-time study in a four-year program at a private school. Increasingly, that’s an experience reserved for the sons and daughters of America’s elite, even if Hollywood has conditioned us to imagine it to be a near-universal undergraduate experience.

For historical, cultural, and political reasons, Americans imagine their country to be a land of opportunity. As a result, we have placed overly higher expectations on education as a means for Americans of humble means to advance themselves. The reality is that few of the Americans who need education the most are able to access the most desired programs. Till now, it has been difficult to re-engineer higher education as an instrument of social equity and justice, because the system wasn’t originally designed for that purpose. And so it would benefit America if the pandemic caused the emergence of a more multi-faceted approach to achieving greater equality (or, at the very least, preserving social stability). A more accessible and affordable education model might be better for the country in the long run, even if students are denied some of the atmospheric trappings that the best schools will continue to provide.

As a student at a large public university in the Midwest, I had many classes with hundreds of students, where the professor’s only responsibility was to lecture, and actual contact with undergraduates was mostly delegated to graduate teaching assistants who were reasonably expert in the subject matter. Did I like this way of learning? No. Did I learn a lot? Yes.

Decades later, I taught at an Italian public university, a relatively small one, limited to “only” about 40,000 students. There were large lecture classes, followed by exams. This, along with professorial research conducted by academics, is what defined life at the university. There was much less hand-holding and extracurricular activity than you would find at an elite American institution. But there were also many excellent students who were motivated enough to proactively seek out professors when they genuinely needed help.

Regrettably, Italy has historically failed many of its best and brightest. The country is a major source of Europe’s brain drain. And some of my own students eventually went on to succeed academically and professionally in other countries. But despite their suboptimal experience as students, Italian mass-attendance universities are at least producing strong minds that are internationally competitive. They’re doing something right.

I still believe that person-to-person contact in classes of manageable size offers an optimum form of higher education. But we cannot let the great be the enemy of the good. Rising tuitions combined with flat middle-class incomes in the United States have conspired to create a situation that was unsustainable even before COVID-19 caused educators to begin having this difficult conversation. The inevitable “massification” of US higher education should not cause us to rend our garments. Students will survive and they will learn.

The good news regarding post-secondary education, which we should not forget, is that it is valuable for students. Return on investment varies based on schools and majors, certainly, but broadly speaking the economic benefits are there. And a bachelor’s degree isn’t a prerequisite to see those benefits. Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce recently issued a report whose title says it all: The Overlooked Value of Certificates and Associate’s Degrees. The center’s director, Anthony Carnevale, emphasizes that “improvements are long overdue in the way colleges operate… including becoming more efficient and transparent and partnering with like-minded institutions to offer innovative, student-friendly educational options.”

Polarization is baked into the current system, and no reform program will completely level the playing field. Many elite institutions will remain elite. But it isn’t the students at those schools who deserve our attention most. It’s all the others, who could never aspire to ivy-covered residence halls, tiny classes and premium campus amenities in the first place.


Eric R. Terzuolo, EdD, PhD is a professorial lecturer at The George Washington University and American University.


  1. I have great doubts about the notion of “quality online education”, but what does it matter? The state of university education was long poisoned by propaganda before Covid-19 hit. Here is my prediction: many degrees will simply be bought under the table. That will be the “reinvention”.

  2. Till now, it has been difficult to re-engineer higher education as an instrument of social equity and justice

    I wasn’t aware that was the purpose of higher education, but it seems that is the current goal of the woke.

    Re-engineering primary education would be a better goal.

  3. The breakdown of government schooling is unquestionably the most positive outcome of all of this.

  4. I am two weeks from moving my daughter into her dorm, as a freshman, at major U.S. state university. It became apparent months ago that universities did not want kids back on campus, but they did not want to lose their jobs either. It is all about getting paid, while providing the kids as little in-person instruction as possible, and as little of the campus experience as possible (what a pack of weasels). She and I have been back and forth all summer about going or not going, a gap year, ect. She has a partial scholarship, and I have the money in the bank for the first couple years, so off she goes.

  5. Welcome, @jamesleeiv

    I wish your daughter all the luck.

    Maybe now is a good time for her to plan to take her third or fourth year of study in Europe? International travel should be open by then, and she can get away from the WhiteWoke Virus at her state school.

  6. I’d like to believe that all real education is self-education (and I think this is largely true from about age 20 on)— and I do think that, of the many failed and failing institutions that litter our public landscape, education is foremost among them. But it still falls to us to do the heavy lifting that rebuilding our schools will require. And (at least thus far the sjw crowd is on-point) that has to start with defunding. Home school, charter, whatever— school choice is the first step down a road to something better. Quit throwing good money after bad all over the place. Then let the overpaid and undereducated self-styled elites in the universities figure their own way out of the mess they’ve become. Defund the PC police.

  7. There was much less hand-holding and extracurricular activity than you would find at an elite American institution. But there were also many excellent students who were motivated enough to proactively seek out professors when they genuinely needed help.

    I’d be in favor of removing the “hand-holding and extracurricular activity” as, imo, that would benefit every university by reducing tuition costs and allowing the replacement of retiring faculty, and enable better funding of high quality research. The growing infantilization (& hand-holding) of university students has progressed steadily for decades. Kindergarden better approximates a norm where students, for example, who can’t be arsed to get up for a 10:00 a.m. class have tantrums and crying scenes before willing administrators, who soothe them and seek ways to “accommodate” the childish behavior by pressuring faculty. Faculty members now experience numerous instances of such (and worse) childishness that is tolerated by administrators focused on placating the “children” (and their parents). Let’s just admit that for some sub-population of uni students today, its “Playskool” and not “University” and be done with it.

    The Australian proposal of turning funding of particular university disciplines into “pay as you go” models may be a good one—which could, I think, apply to all disciplines. Time will tell. My initial thought/hope is that such a model might wipe out useless and “activist/critical” types of “studies” that waste everyone’s time, energy, and resources. It might have the added (downstream) benefit of wiping out all the useless publications spawned by, and that serve, the “activist/critical studies” industries.

  8. Thank you for your kind words. We are both excited.

    By the end of this year, I believe we will both be in a better position to consider alternatives. She is moving across country, to an area, where she believes she wants to establish herself anew; an arguably overpriced university, appears to be the best choice at this time.

    On a related topic, early this month, she had a mandatory online freshman orientation. She angrily sent me screenshots, throughout the presentation, because it provided no helpful information for incoming freshman. Mistakenly, we thought it might contain information on campus life, moving on campus, resources, study habits, campus security, even information on COVID. Nothing about any of that…the topic was modern day slavery and oppression. The school shared this bogus infographic that purported to show hundreds of thousands of modern day slaves in the U.S. and Western Europe, as well as some parts of Africa, the Middle East, and China. She was understandably angry, desiring helpful information, to make the transition to college, not propaganda.

  9. Who are these “Americans who need education the most”? What does that even mean?

    Should those who “need education the most” be admitted to Medicine or Engineering based on “need” even if they are not viable candidates?

    You can’t have “social equity and justice” at university anymore than you can have “social equity and justice” in the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL.

    You can socially engineer the admissions process by lowering the entry bar and grant degrees to unqualified students to achieve equity, but this is a fool’s errand.

  10. I just can’t see how the STEM fields are possible though distance learning. Previous attempts in these fields yield extraordinarily low pass rates. This is because those with high cognitive ability can work it out for themselves, some will never get it, and a band in the middle can pass if they are helped through teaching. What will it do to the curve, if the bottom 80% end up dropping out?

  11. Computer Science is already far more a self-taught, online-learning profession than many others.

    And 80% of the more hands-on disciplines are bookwork as well.

    The big win that we need to push for is a la carte education. No more “you can’t get an electrical engineering degree unless you take 12 credits of Critical Race Theory at $900/credit”. Most hands-on disciplines have certification exams that can replace the almighty “diploma”. Course-level certs are also possible. And just imagine - they could be independent of government influence! Relatively speaking, anyway.

    Any criticism of the lack of well-roundedness of a science-only education should be slapped back by comparing the skilled engineer with so-so grammar/culture skills to his H1-B counterpart, who is generally worse at American norms. It’d be racist to set the standard beyond what Dipak from Pune can do, right?

  12. I’m not sure why, but I’m quite sure that your comment is racist. Probably transphobic, too.

    But what STEM field isn’t?

  13. Because the “other ways of knowing” are just as valid, more valid in fact, and require little to zero cognitive anything. Maybe some cognitive dissonance, but that’s the only cognitive involved.

  14. Modern universities all inherited the ancient medieval model of the higher education experience, through lectures, tutorials, visits to the library and hot button intellectual chatter in the cafeterias and local pubs…

    These features all provided a basis for reflection and systematic response to the exercise of study and learning, like essay/problem solving and exam writing, to show how one could construct and analyse ideas, as well as the evidence and arguments for and against them, in a thoughtful and intellectually disciplined fashion, so that one could take those skills into the world and make a reasonable go of its social and economic administration.

    And just as Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized the means of text based intellectual access and dissemination, which super imposed itself over earlier mainly oral traditions that had had very limited access to written text, the digital revolution is similarly exploding the architecture of knowledge, discourse, education and its dissemination.

    I think COVID 19 is forcing the pace of this revolution across the entire economy and culture.

    Businesses, particularly in tertiary services industries are starting to discover that many of their desk workers do not need to be in the office all the time, and that they do not really need anywhere near as much physical office infrastructure and space for face to face interaction as they are currently using and relying on. Ditto for the education, which after all is a tertiary industry sector.

    Working and studying in virtual space has some unique challenges, but they can really only be addressed by plunging in, experimenting with various productivity and interactivity models and seeing what works. And Covid has unceremoniously pushed everyone into this new, still unfamiliar and much deeper pool of both opportunity and threat.

    The Khan academy is a good example of an emerging genre which started when Khan himself, who at the time was tutoring his niece and nephew in Maths, found one day that he could not attend a tutorial. So he sent them an interactive video instead. The children preferred the video to him, because it was easier to follow and they had much more control over how they learned from him.

    He found that when he broke down a maths problem into its discrete basic explanatory components, he and his students could check their understanding, and if necessary go back if they didn’t follow, to a menu of alternative explanations, until they did, at their own pace, and never get left behind.

    Of course there are new motivation, productivity and management issues here, but they are really already addressable through existing mechanisms within the virtual and corporeal social milieus.

    The following essay was written some years ago, about amongst other things, how secondary education and socialization might reconstruct itself along more modern (McDonalds) lines. Schools and the system of adolescent socialization generally are going through the same crisis of cultural shift as universities, and for analogous reasons. And yes, all such systems, except ones that have fallen prey to laissez-faire degovernancing, are ‘totalitarian’.

  15. Interesting. That slavery map is courtesy of

    How did researchers arrive at total numbers encompassing all these activities for so many countries? They administered a survey to 71,000 respondents across 48 countries. They then extrapolated results for other countries with similar risk profiles. These are some of the best and most widely reported numbers available even if some governments and scholars disagree with the findings. You can read more about the study’s methodology here.

    It doesn’t say how many of those 71,000 responded to the survey, or who they are. Or who the scholars are who disagreed with the findings.

    Follow the link “here”, and you find that the methodology was put together by WalkFree, a part of the Mindaroo Foundation, and the founder of Mindaroo is Australian mining billionaire, Andrew Forrest.

    Feeling guilty, perhaps, about having raped the earth and oppressed the workers for so long, but that doesn’t justify paying for dodgy socialist propaganda, which this ‘world map of modern slavery’ seems to be.

    [from] First of all, slavery can be difficult to define, and researchers used a few different concepts, including forced marriage, bondage, indentured servitude and human trafficking. If people are being treated like property, it’s slavery.

    I don’t know what it felt like to work for Andrew Forrest in the mines.

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