I taught my first university class (at the University of Illinois) the semester that John F. Kennedy was assassinated57 years ago, and I am teaching probably my last this semester (at Ohio University). Of the more than 100 semesters in between, this is clearly the most memorable and trying. Let me list just ten problems facing universities this fall before commenting on the lasting impact of the pandemic.
1) How many students are enrolled this fall? Typically, schools can predict within 1-2 percent by June what fall enrollments will be. This year, when 20 percent of newly admitted Harvard students want to defer admission for a year (previously unheard of), enrollment estimates for schools are highly speculative. Tuition fees sometimes provide over half of school revenues. Colleges have huge fixed costswill they have enough dollars to pay their bills?
2) For residential colleges: how many dorm rooms will be occupied and how many students can they safely accommodate given Covid-19? Will cafeterias operate, and, if not, are employees being discharged?
3) How do we certify that students studying remotely are really learning? What kind of examinations will be used and do they guard against cheating? Schools with limited online experience may struggle with this.
4) How do we finance extra costs associated with protecting the health of the campus community, particularly given loss of revenues from tuition, state assistance, etc.? For example, given high costs, what is the optimal amount of testing students for Covid-19?
5) Do we close down all extracurricular activities on health/social distancing grounds, including intercollegiate athletics?
6) If using largely remote learning, how do we handle instruction inherently needing close interpersonal contact, such as scientific laboratory activities, or instruction in musical instruments? It is probably hard to become a piano virtuoso strictly from remote instruction.
7) If we face major expenditure reductions in order to finance operations, which staff do we dismiss, which do we keep on enforceed furloughs, for which do we cut pay permanently? Do we stop hiring consultants, forbid travel, etc.?
8) How do we maintain external relations critical to long-term funding and public supporttalking to big donors, powerful legislators and having homecoming celebrations?
9) Do we have students, faculty, etc., sign waivers protecting the school from legal liability? Are waivers legally meaningful?
10) Can we legally try to enforce social distancing for students living off-campus, and, if so, how?
This list is far from exhaustive, but shows some of the immense difficulties university administrations face this fall. Remember, pre-Covid-19, a large portion of American universities were in at least somewhat shaky condition, with total U.S. enrollments lower in 2019 than in 2011, and many schools with large debt incurred during an early 21st century building spree.
Will this accelerate needed long-term changes in higher education? Will the threat of imminent demise cause schools to fundamentally reform? I am uncertain but not overly optimistic. The system is too inefficient, hidebound, arrogant, ideological and overly shielded from market forces by billions of dollars of third party largess. Too many academics think they are intellectually and morally superior, and that society owes them a good living.
To cite one example of potential constructive reform: I thought most schools would shed much of their costly huge administrative bloat created over the past few decades, retreating to funding core teaching and instructional activities that have been downgraded in what Johns Hopkins Ben Ginsberg calls the all-administrative university. But at my university, and if what I read about other schools is true, that is not happening: the army of rent-seeking power hungry administrative aristocrats is largely being untouched.
But academics cannot completely ignore the power of markets. If I am right, traditional higher education will lose market share to other ways of certifying vocational competence, and the credential inflation of modern times will be fundamentally weakened. The time has come for a GED-type examination (the NCEE National College Equivalence Examination) measuring the equivalent of minimal standards of critical thinking and basic core academic knowledge that college graduates should know, leading more employers, heretofore brain dead on the concept, to end college degree requirements for jobs and hire kids with high NCEE scores who have limited or maybe even no formal college education.