Faced with few options, colleges must make their case

Faced with few options, colleges must make their case
© Yale University | Michael Marsland

When American colleges and universities sent students home in March, most were responding to states of emergency declared by the nation’s governors. Decisions on reopening, however, have been left largely to the colleges and universities themselves.

The options are few, fraught with peril, and likely to diminish already plummeting public support for higher education in the United States.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive in the midst of a pandemic, colleges and universities must do more — a lot more — to make the case that they have never been more essential.

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Institutions that provide in-person classes risk serious coronavirus outbreaks, a return to remote instruction, and withering criticism every step of the way. The University of North Carolina, for example, sent students home barely a week into the semester, after 130 students tested positive for COVID-19. In this case, and many others, students, parents, politicians, and the media accused administrators of putting their institutions’ financial interests ahead of students’ welfare and the public good.

Colleges and universities that don’t reopen in person risk losing students to other institutions and lawsuits demanding discounts in tuition and fees.

Whichever path they take, colleges and universities face major financial hurdles. Given visa, quarantine, and other restrictions, many international students will not return for in-person study. Faced with remote-only instruction, many undergraduates have elected to take leaves of absence, or, in the case of freshmen, defer attendance for a semester or a year. And institutions opening in person are finding that a significant number of students have opted to study remotely. Those students, of course, do not pay for college housing, dining, and the other services that generate significant revenue for most institutions, especially four-year private colleges.

As revenues decline, almost all institutions are seeing sharp increases in expenses. Financial aid costs are up, as families struggle with job losses, health and child-care expenses. Colleges that open in person must spend large sums to reconfigure residence halls, classrooms, and dining halls, as well as to secure large blocks of rooms at local hotels for isolation and quarantine contingencies and to pay for virus testing and enhanced technology.

Public institutions can also expect dramatic reductions in state aid. And by one estimate, colleges and universities need at least $46 billion in federal government support, while stimulus money has so far provided only $7.6 billion.

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Even if financial hardships prove temporary (we think they are likely to persist for years), colleges and universities face a more subtle and, in some respects, more troubling challenge. Once widely respected, higher education now faces pervasive public cynicism and distrust.

In a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of Americans declared higher education was going in the wrong direction. From 2015 to 2019, the number of Republicans believing that higher education has a negative effect on the country increased from 37 percent to 59 percent.

Inevitably, given the constraints on education this fall, dissatisfaction will accelerate questions from Americans across the political spectrum about whether college is “worth it.”

Now more than ever colleges and universities must make an affirmative case for higher education. From a purely economic standpoint, the return on a college degree has seldom if ever been higher. College graduates earn more and report better health, life satisfaction, and civic engagement than those who lack a degree.

In addition to a return on investment, higher education is at least as much about intellectual growth and personal development as it is about career preparation. That is why so many students want to return to campus even in the midst of a pandemic.

Colleges and universities can (and must) also play a pivotal role in addressing the pressing problems we face. Doctors, public health experts, and ethicists at research universities provide much of the expertise needed to address the pandemic. And colleges and universities provide the social scientists, demographers, and other experts who are helping us navigate the economic crisis. They will, we hope, offer opportunities as well for all qualified students to acquire the skills and knowledge they need to be effective and fulfilled in the 21st century.

Often at the forefront of social change, colleges and universities are helping our country address the profound challenges of racial justice highlighted by the recent killing of George Floyd and so many others.

For too long, colleges and universities have been playing defense. But they — we — must now recognize that, as Jimmy Breslin put it, “if you don’t blow your horn, there is no music.”

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.

David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College.