Friday, June 5, 2020

Reopening Higher Ed

As colleges and universities around the country weigh how they will reopen this Fall, various voices are being heard. Here are just two:
What are some of the factors that schools are weighing (whether they admit them or not)?

Faculty and staff: Students are generally young and have few preexisting conditions. On the other hand, faculty and staff are older, and many have family members with significant risks. Bringing students back puts the faculty, staff, business owners, and all their families at risk. Honestly, this seems like an OSHA issue to me.

Revenue: When I originally looked at the university bill I paid in January, I just focused on the bottom line: How much am I writing a check for? Now, I look at every line and wonder: Will there be an athletic fee if the gym is closed? What about the meal plan? If everything were virtual, the bottom line would be VERY different. For me, all of those are distinct costs, but for the university, they are all important revenue streams.

The higher education value proposition: I'm not going to wade too far into the "is college worth it" debate, but I found this article by Susan Svrluga at the Washington Post particularly interesting: Is college worth it? A Georgetown study measures return on investment — with some surprising results. One thing this points out is that not all schools (even within a particular university) are equal financially. Most vocational schools such as law and business and engineering will survive this regardless. Those departments that can go virtual well probably should. But what about schools of liberal arts? What about those philosophy and religious studies and sociology departments? They are in a tougher spot. Faculty in these areas care about their health, but they also like having jobs. Honestly, this probably requires its own blog posts, but what if I just go with word association: community colleges, gap year, University of Phoenix, the humanities make us human.

Students without privilege: Many students are barely able to afford college. They scrape by thanks to on-campus jobs and scholarships and loans. This upheaval will make the college dream unattainable for many of these students. Without a job in the dining hall or at the athletic center, some students can't afford to live on campus. On the other hand, some students have home lives that aren't compatible with distance learning. Internet access, child care, loud siblings, space, and a plethora of other issues make virtual learning virtually impossible for many students. It's a lose-lose proposition for them.

College towns: There is no Blacksburg without Virginia Tech. What about Ann Arbor without the Univeristy of Michigan? Oberlin, OH? College Station, TX? State College, PA? You get the idea. Hechinger Report has Little-noticed victims of the higher education shutdowns: college towns

Students with privilege: First of all, I have put students last because they (as a population) are not particularly at risk, and they are resilient. If they all had to live at home and do this virtually, most of them would figure out how to do it well. That said, I'm sure my son is not alone in wanting very desperately to get back to campus (I'm trying not to be hurt). 

Let's be honest and admit that faculty and schools come at this from radically different perspectives. Faculty care about the health of their families, while schools are confronting an existential crisis. Many schools probably worry that going virtual will crush their bottom line, degrade the educational experience, and open themselves up to competition from challengers they never had to worry about before. 

So... what should schools do? 
  1. No school or jurisdiction should open without a solid test-trace-isolate strategy. This May 15 article by Alex Tabarrok and Puja Ahluwalia Ohlhaver at The Washington Post: We could stop the pandemic by July 4 if the government took these steps lays out solid strategies.
  2. Blended Learning: The importance of this is two-fold: Blending can help reduce class sizes (which improves safety), and can help prepare for going to more virtual strategies. 
  3. Flexibility: How will you deal with a surge in cases on campus? How will you re-imagine your traditional gatherings? 
Should be interesting to see how this plays out.

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