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 distance–learning 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.
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