This week, bowing to the reality of a raging pandemic, Harvard announced that “all course instruction (undergraduate and graduate) for the 2020-21 academic year will be delivered online.” Some students, mostly freshmen, will be allowed to live on campus, but even they will learn remotely from socially distanced dorms.
Variations on this approach are becoming the consensus in elite higher education. Princeton has also said it will be mostly online, at a 10 percent tuition discount, “even for on-campus students,” with many activities “unavailable, impermissible or highly regulated” and parties prohibited. At M.I.T., only seniors will be invited back to campus this fall.
But most students shouldn’t expect similar treatment. The Chronicle of Higher Education has compiled a database of fall reopening plans at more than 1,000 colleges and universities. While the vast majority of the most selective universities will use online learning or a “hybrid” strategy that mixes online and in-person instruction, fully 60 percent of all colleges surveyed are taking a different approach. They’re going to open for business and bring all of their students back.
Which means that, in our topsy-turvy coronavirus world, online higher education has abruptly gone from down-market and sometimes disreputable to a privilege reserved for the elite few. In 2020, only the best and the brightest will be allowed to not go to college.
At least among traditional residential students, that is. The Chronicle database shows the most intense plans for online learning are at both ends of the selectivity spectrum. Many community colleges are also going online only, along with commuter campuses like the California State University System, which announced its online plans back in May. All of a sudden, Stanford has a lot in common with your local two-year vocational college.
The reasons come down to mission and money. Nearly half of all Cal State students live at home with their parents, often studying while holding down jobs. Only 14 percent live in dorms. Most aren’t getting an immersive residential college experience to disrupt. Community colleges were early adopters of online learning, and many have become adept at teaching at a distance. For them, the 2020-21 academic year will be more evolution than revolution.
The plans announced by Harvard et al. will be very expensive. Dormitory occupancy will be severely cut; faculty will require intensive training in remote teaching; and classrooms will need to be wired for video and sound. Online learning also means students will need up-to-date computers and reliable broadband access. This isn’t much of a problem for very wealthy colleges that enroll mostly wealthy students.
Elite colleges also have tremendous power in the market. They can keep tuition rates constant and insist that students enroll on their terms, because they know that few will forgo the opportunity to graduate with the Class of 2024 and reap a lifetime of status and social connection. If anyone decides otherwise, there is an endless wait list of eager applicants happy to take their place.
But for colleges in the middle of the pack, the financial calculus looks very different. Public universities are facing huge state budget cuts as state tax receipts plummet and Congress continues to debate the wisdom of new bailout funds. Many private colleges were already teetering on the edge of financial calamity before the pandemic and could be pushed into bankruptcy if large numbers of students choose to delay enrollment or demand steep price discounts for online learning.
This week’s decision by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to revoke the visas of foreign students who remain enrolled in fully online programs will make matters worse. Many colleges have papered over chronic budget shortfalls in recent years by enrolling large numbers of foreign students who pay full tuition rates.
Harvard and M.I.T. have now filed a lawsuit, citing the Department of Homeland Security official Ken Cuccinelli’s statement that the regulations were designed to “encourage schools to reopen.”
Colleges also face huge shortfalls in housing revenues. Students who learn remotely aren’t paying a discount on dorm fees — they’re just not paying. A Seton Hall University professor, Robert Kelchen, has found that some small liberal arts colleges receive more than 30 percent of their annual revenue from housing, dining and other auxiliary sources. Washington State University, which plans to open for business and requires freshmen to live in dorms, has declared that no housing refunds will be given even if the university is forced to close midsemester because of Covid-19.
President Trump denounced Harvard’s decision this week, calling it “ridiculous” and “the easy way out” a day after stating on Twitter that “Schools Must Open in the Fall!!!”
Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, said colleges were being pressured via the new ICE policy to open “on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others.”
Colleges in states that have taken a more aggressive approach to reopening may feel pressure to avoid online options. And of course there’s the prospect of the coming college football season, with thousands of empty stadium seats not generating revenue and publicity for the alma mater. Multimillion dollar coaching contracts don’t pay for themselves.
Many university faculty are alarmed by the prospect of returning to campus, particularly those who are older or medically at risk. After intense criticism, the University System of Georgia reversed a policy that would have “encouraged” the use of masks in classrooms instead of mandating them. University decision-making continues to evolve along with the latest public health statistics and knowledge about disease transmission.
The distinction between “online” and “in-person” learning can be murky — a small, intensive seminar conducted over Zoom can be more interpersonal than a sterile lecture delivered “live” in an auditorium. And college students learn a great deal outside the classroom. For students who have insecure access to food and housing, campus can be a safer and more stable place to be.
But it’s telling that the universities with the most money and prestige are coalescing around a safety- and technology-centered approach to higher learning that millions of students will be denied.
Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America. You can follow him on Twitter at @kevincarey1.