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On March 19, the George Mason University community learned that “a student who attended classes in Arlington tested positive for coronavirus and is receiving treatment at a local hospital.” A month later, The Washington Post had a feature story about the student, Francis Wilson. Thankfully, he survived after spending 11 days in a medically induced coma, on a ventilator. He told the Post that he wants people to take a lesson from his story.

With more than two-thirds of the colleges and universities that have so far provided information to The Chronicle of Higher Education reporting that they will hold in-person classes this fall, it’s not clear that our colleges and universities are honoring his request. In fact, less than 10 percent have thus far reported that they are planning to hold most or all classes online; the vast majority of these are part of the California State University system, which has canceled nearly all in-person classes this fall.

Today, the annual revenues for the U.S. higher education industry exceed $650 billion, with public institutions accounting for about 60 percent of the total -- more than $400 billion. And, depending on the estimate you choose, the global value of the tertiary higher education market ranges between $1.5 and $2 trillion. Worldwide, it’s little wonder that colleges face growing pressure to bring students back to their campuses.

But the size of the industry isn’t the only reason that colleges are feeling the pressure to reopen in the fall. One of the not-so-openly-discussed motivations may be the nearly $250 billion of debt these institutions have amassed in recent years. For example, by my calculations, my institution, George Mason University, the largest public university in the Commonwealth of Virginia, has outstanding debt obligations of at least $522 million and will pay nearly $60 million in fiscal year 2020 for debt service. I estimate that roughly 40 percent of that debt is associated with residence and dining hall facilities that serve less than 20 percent of Mason’s students.

Mason’s recently published pandemic planning document examined four plans being considered for opening this fall and projected losses between $69 million and $195 million for just this one semester -- depending on which plan is selected. In each of those scenarios, other than losses from anticipated enrollment declines, the next largest projected revenue shortfalls are directly related to occupancy in student housing and dining services. Based on the percentage of Mason’s debt associated with those facilities, it’s easy to see why the administration’s priority is to bring students back to dormitories and dining halls.

Doing so is not without risk. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “COVID-19 Guidance for Shared or Congregate Housing” notes, “People living and working in this type of housing may have challenges with social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Shared housing residents often gather together closely for social, leisure, and recreational activities, shared dining, and/or use of shared equipment, such as kitchen appliances, laundry facilities, stairwells, and elevators.” Assuming that Mason, or any other college or university, opens its residential housing, the American College Health Association’s recently published guidelines incorporate the general CDC guidance and state, “It is difficult to maintain full physical distancing in on-campus housing, and even modified guidelines may be difficult to achieve.”

Physical distancing, including single-occupancy rooms, is only part of what ACHA recommends for student housing. They advise colleges and universities to have in place other requirements for student housing that include wearing face masks in public spaces, proper hand hygiene and cleaning instructions, as well as restrictions on social gatherings and access by nonresidents. They also have recommendations on training programs and the need for isolation and quarantine plans. And the CDC’s recently published "Considerations for Institutes of Higher Education" recommends that they “close shared spaces such as dining halls.” All of which raises the question of enforcement, particularly within this group of young adults, most of whom are on their own for the first time.

Francis Wilson told The Washington Post that he hadn’t been out of the country and was not in contact with anyone who he thought might have the virus. Sadly, his story is not uncommon. And while he didn’t live in a dormitory, what if the next Wilson does? Just in terms of dollars and cents, this seems to be a very high price to pay to keep dorms at least partially occupied and dining halls open. As New York governor Andrew Cuomo recently asked, “How much is a human life worth?” Certainly not the debt service being paid to bondholders and bankers on a dormitory.

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