Preventing the Collapse of Higher Education

The option of students returning to campus in the fall is not viable, regardless of the economic implications, argues William G. Tierney.

May 11, 2020
 
 
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Higher education as we know it is approaching economic collapse. I appreciate the frantic gestures college presidents are making to prevent their own campuses from failing. Many intend to open their campuses for the fall term and avoid economic ruin. It is the wrong call.

Even the most optimistic of epidemiologists have two opinions about the remaining months of 2020: mass gatherings should be prohibited, and people over 55 and/or with pre-existing conditions should continue to stay indoors. We also know that individuals under 25 are least likely to become sick with the coronavirus and are most likely to flout requests to stay indoors, wear masks and avoid public places such as beaches and parks.

College presidents are unsure about what to do with their campuses in the fall, and uncertainty breeds anxiety. No one has a crystal ball, but with what we know, what should happen on the nation’s campuses in the fall is increasingly clear. The option of students returning to campus in the fall is not viable, regardless of the economic implications.

Until we have clear and certain benchmarks that our campuses are COVID-19-free, here are the four parameters of what needs to happen:

  • Cancel football games and all public gatherings. Perhaps football can be played in empty stadiums, but having crowds of 100,000 streaming into arenas from tailgate parties is asking for the virus to spread, particularly as the weather cools and the virus raises its head again. Weekend concerts, fraternity parties, all-campus lectures and the array of typical campus functions must be forbidden.
  • Do not require anyone over 55 years old and those who are immunocompromised to come to campus until 2021. Although anyone can catch the virus, those who are most at risk of serious illness are individuals over 55 and those who are immunocompromised. To require those individuals to gather in any public areas is to risk personal and public safety. All staff members over 55 should continue working from home. Close to 40 percent of tenure-track faculty are over 55. These tenure-track faculty, the same age cohort of non-tenure-track colleagues and the immunocompromised should continue to teach online.
  • Create the conditions for a disease-free campus. The best way to ensure a healthy learning environment is to ensure that everyone on campus is virus-free. Without constant testing of the people on our campuses, we do not know what we are combating. Campuses must have the ability for periodic testing and contact tracing that is comprehensive and mandatory.
  • Ban any class or event where social distancing is not six feet by six feet. No students should be crammed into lecture halls or overcrowded dining halls.

An Essential Economic Driver

Obviously, these parameters will create profound challenges for colleges and universities. It is impossible to have a successful institutional environment where no public gatherings take place, half of the faculty members don’t set foot in a classroom and simply getting onto a campus requires massive testing. The economic consequences will be devastating for America’s campuses.

Greater than 5 percent of the more than 4,000 U.S. colleges and universities are likely to close because of falling enrollment, according to Robert Zemsky. Many observers now predict that enrollments will shrink by 15 percent. The pandemic and the Trump administration's xenophobia alone will shrink foreign student enrollment, especially from China and India, by 25 percent, the American Council on Education has estimated. Meanwhile, some states like New Jersey are already clawing back money from campuses that has been allocated for this fiscal year; next year’s budgets will be worse than the recession in every state. Philanthropic giving will take a nose dive. Summer and auxiliary enterprises will yield next to no additional revenue.

College presidents have a right to be terrified. But opening campuses in the fall is the wrong move if the primary motivation is to avoid bankruptcy. Public health comes first.

The federal government bailed out the auto industry during the Great Recession because the industry is an essential component of the American economy. Let the auto industry fail, the thinking went, and workers face economic devastation and the country suffers.

Policy makers must think in the same manner about U.S. higher education today. The 20th century was thought of as the American century partially because of the rapid rise and central role played by the nation’s colleges and universities. American higher education at the end of that century was the envy of the world. A better-educated nation raises productivity, competitiveness and civic engagement. Research and innovation have led to social, scientific and cultural breakthroughs. Especially now, if we want the United States to rebuild its economy, a healthy postsecondary sector is essential.

What will it take? All institutions must continue with a full array of online course offerings. Federal loans for students earning less than $150,000/year should be forgiven for the fall, and grants should be provided to cover the difference for those students who cannot afford tuition. Higher education institutions that can demonstrate that they will have a viable student enrollment in January should receive bridge funding from the federal government to get through the fall. Public institutions should receive similar support if their states agree to restore funding as their economies recover.

Yes, the cost will be high -- it will probably exceed $50 billion. But the cost of allowing the disease to re-emerge in the fall, or letting institutions fail, is incalculable.

Bio

William G. Tierney is University Professor Emeritus and founding director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.

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