How Will Coronavirus Redefine College?

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The following piece is by University of Georgia history professor Stephen Mihm. Warning: What you are about to read is not pretty.  A taste:

Imagine, for a moment, if August rolls around and the pandemic has abated but colleges and universities remain shuttered. This doesn’t mean, though, that they can’t operate: After all, professors across the country have spent the past few weeks putting classes online, teaching via Zoom, and otherwise adapting to the new normal. In theory, the nation’s institutions of higher education can simply do the same come fall. And therein lies a problem.

When students shell out $50,000 a year to attend a school that admits a majority of applicants, they’re paying for a lot more than professors. They’re paying for the experience of college: dating, dorm life, fraternities and sororities, Frisbee on the quad — all the stuff that has come to define college for the past century or so. This is one reason, perhaps, that colleges and universities have spent so much money on amenities and extracurricular diversions, rather than actual education, in recent years.

But when education moves online, all of that disappears. Instead, you’re left with a haggard-looking professor on Zoom. That’s worth something, sure, but it isn’t worth paying anything close to full freight. Parents who confront this reality come fall semester are going to quickly conclude that their children will need to settle for something more practical, like some online courses offered by a local branch of the state university.

This may be true even if schools reopen. As parents of high-school-age children recover from the pandemic and the job losses that have attended it, the logical choice for many — perhaps the only choice, given their financial circumstances — will be to hold off on the pricey residential college experience until things return to normal.

Brick-and-mortar colleges and universities, though, can’t wait. They’ve got fixed costs: buildings and laboratories to maintain; faculty and staff to pay; debts to service; and many other expenses. Yes, some have endowments, but outside a handful of elite universities, these are rarely large, and they have already sustained significant damage over the past month. This will leave the hundreds of schools who have bet their futures on residential education in a serious bind.

Unlike so much of the workforce today, employees at these colleges and universities often spend their entire lives working for the same institution. They are the living embodiment of these institutions, participating fully in all the rituals that make college an experience. Get rid of them, and you have effectively destroyed investments in human capital built up over many decades.

Read the entire piece at Bloomberg.