This past weekend I was pondering the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially its impact on higher education. Over the years, in certain past articles I've written for College Confidential, I made predictions about the future of college in America. Inspired by my musings, I checked to see what my forecasts were, as far back as 2015.
The main theme that ran through them was something like, "There's a sea change coming," meaning that big changes were in the making for higher ed. In surveying the college landscape today, as we head toward August and Fall Semester 2020, I can best describe the situation by paraphrasing that great 1957 rock-and-roll hit by Jerry Lee Lewis: There's a whole lotta shakin' goin' on. All because of COVID-19.
Fall Plans Vary Dramatically
To document some of the aspects of this shaking, I'll reference some highly disparate plans for reopening campuses this fall, as well as the issue of college cost and how students are currently thinking about that. As for Fall 2020 plans, keep in mind that it's mid-July. About three weeks or so remain before some students will begin returning to campus. Thus, colleges' current fall plans are subject to change without notice, depending on the coronavirus' behavior, even after students have moved back to college.
As for contrasting plans to bring students back to campus this fall, let's look at two dramatically different approaches, from Bowdoin College and Middlebury College. This disparity came to my attention through an Inside Higher Ed article by Bill Burger: A Tale of 2 Colleges. In it, Burger notes the two completely different procedures these two Northeastern liberal arts colleges have proposed for the fall semester.
… Bowdoin College president Clayton Rose announced last week that the 1,800-student Maine school would open its campus in September only to a small number of students: incoming first-years and transfers, students who would find it nearly impossible to participate in online learning at home, and a small number of senior honors students whose projects require the use of campus resources. That's it. With the exception of first-year writing seminars, all classes will be online. The college has canceled fall sports and virtually all extracurricular activities. Tuition for the online fall semester at Bowdoin will be $27,911 — unchanged from last year …
Keep tuition numbers for both Bowdoin and Middlebury in mind because I'll be presenting some thoughts about that, along with some student attitudes, farther down the page.
Burger compares Bowdoin's austere plan with Middlebury's more traditional concept, which seems much more mainstream, at least under the current circumstances:
… Later that day, just two states over and 160 miles to the west, Middlebury College president Laurie Patton announced the Vermont school's reopening plan. In sharp contrast to Bowdoin, Middlebury invited all of its undergraduates — close to 2,750 in all — to return in September, promising a mix of in-person and remote classes, as well as a significant number of hybrid courses. The college's faculty members, who engaged in a searing debate over the question a week earlier before voting in favor of a reopening, will each be able to choose how they teach. A Middlebury administrator told me that students strongly supported having an in-person experience when recently surveyed on their preference. There is no word on the status of athletics or other extracurricular activities. Tuition for the 2020-21 fall semester at Middlebury will be $28,940 — up 3.75 percent from last year …
Bowdoin, bringing first-year students to campus while forestalling others, is attempting to make the transition from high school to college easier by having first-years begin their college careers at the start of their first semester rather than later. A later start could make for an aura of asynchronous imbalance. This appears to be the preferred plan for other schools that aren't bringing everyone back this fall.
Cost Questions Arise
Regarding costs for fall, there are various schemes. Some schools, such as Bowdoin, are keeping costs stable (the same as last year), even in light of online classes and dramatically different campus accommodations. Others have raised costs, such as Middlebury. Still others have cut costs, such as Princeton University.
Regardless of cuts, increases or no changes in costs, the overwhelming sentiment among students and parents is that college is much too expensive. The seemingly excessive high cost has led to an astronomical amount of loan debt for students, along with an equally alarming level of loan defaults. All this leads to one key question:
Why is college so expensive?
One of the best answers to that question comes from U.S. News, in Emma Kerr's article by the same name as our question. Some important insights:
… While the sticker price is rarely what students actually pay after grants and scholarships, researchers at The New Center, a bipartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., set out to understand the root cause of the rising cost of tuition and the student debt crisis facing the U.S. in a report released in August.
It's easy to see why there tends to be a reliance on student loans to pay for college: Tuition prices increased 36% from 2008 to 2018, while the real median income in the U.S. grew just over 2.1% in the same period, according to data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. To afford college, many students take on debt, resulting in more than 1 million people defaulting on their student loans every year, with average monthly payments close to $400 …
Comparing the small rises in income and inflation with the leap in tuition should be enough to shock and anger any reasonable person. Getting back to my practice of predicting, I believe that Americans, in general, won't abide this disparity much longer, especially as we head through challenging pandemic-era economic times. The headwaters of this changing mindset may be seen in the current downturn in college enrollment. COVID-19 is doing its part in adding to that plunge.
Student Surveys Reveal Uncertainty
What do students think about all this?
According to TestMax, the results of two recent surveys of almost 3,000 students from universities across the US "hold grave implications for the future of higher education — indicating a looming collapse — and reflect the depth of the COVID-19 recession's impact on the job market." Ominous findings, indeed.
- 74 percent of undergrads feel they have overpaid for their education by an average of 57 percent.
- 50 percent of law students say that if it were possible, they would likely not have chosen to go to law school knowing what they know now.
- 56 percent of undergrads and 63 percent of law students state their income-earning abilities have been diminished by an average of 57 percent and 45 percent, respectively.
- 62 percent of students said it will take them considerably longer than anticipated to pay off their student loans.
The general finding is that students overwhelmingly feel that tuition is about 50 percent too high relative to their income-earning abilities. As TestMax notes, "Such findings, as time goes on, could dramatically disrupt the norm of higher-education, and lead to monumental shifts in how young people enter the workforce."
Of course, there is a group of colleges and universities that will always prosper, regardless of costs, economic conditions and even world events. Those "elites" include the Ivy League and Top-50-ranked schools. They prosper due to their perceived "prestige," among other sought after aspects. However, the pandemic has caused even wealthy schools like Stanford economic stress.
What remains to be seen is how COVID-19 affects colleges this year. We already know that fall semester will be dicey and there's no guarantee that spring will be any better. Add to this the factors of falling enrollment, student loan debt and apparent dissatisfaction with the cost effectiveness (a.k.a. value) of college and you have a tailor-made recipe for higher-ed administrators' insomnia, with many sleepless nights ahead.
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