What the Pandemic Has Taught Us About Higher Ed
The economic calamity caused by COVID-19's spread has already led us to question some of our habits, conventions, and systems. An urban office worker might ask why they live in an expensive city when it's clear that they can do 90% of their work remotely. A teacher like me might reconsider how poverty and trauma impacts our students by rethinking entrenched practices around grading. A parent or college-age student might ask: why is the price of college increasing (as it has for most years in recent memory), even when the college experience this fall will be significantly less robust?
Or, why are some of the best-resourced universities in the U.S. choosing to adopt a fully remote model for the fall even while less-prestigious institutions bring students back for in-person learning?
Aidan O'Connor asks some of these questions in his column in the Yale Daily News. Yale has decided to keep tuition levels steady for this year, despite raising them by about 3% per year since 2010 (the inflation rate over that time period was about 1.7%). Despite the decision to keep tuition the same, O'Connor points out that the justification for Yale's $57,700 tuition is increasingly strained. Given the current economic conditions, he predicts that even a Yale graduate will struggle to parlay her/his degree into the success that has always been the promise of an Ivy League credential. Yale isn't alone in its tuition choice. In fact, 39 out of the 100 U.S. institutions with the largest endowments have chosen to increase tuition for the upcoming fall.
Many Americans will have little sympathy for the Yale graduate. After all, obtaining an education at an elite institution like Yale is an opportunity largely afforded to only the wealthiest Americans (the top 1% is 77 times more likely to attend an elite university than those in the bottom quintile) and one that is certainly still hugely valuable. But in general, when the price of a product increases, consumers expect an increase in value. This has not been the case on college campuses where the educational experience has mostly remained the same for decades. Tuition has been marching steadily higher at most colleges in the U.S., not just the elite ones.
The pandemic has shaken higher ed to the core. Most colleges and universities in the U.S. rely on tuition dollars to fund their operations. Even if prudence indicates that classes should be conducted remotely, some students might decide that a semester on Zoom isn't worth the tuition they are paying. But the most prestigious universities are playing by a different set of rules. Although elite institutions offer an exceptional educational experience, most of the benefit of attending such a school is conferred by simply getting in. Parents know this, and even the most advantaged and well-connected are willing to go through great lengths to help their children clear this hurdle (some are even willing to break the law). This helps explain the decisions of Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford to hold classes remotely, even while neighboring institutions tie themselves in knots to offer ill-advised, in-person instruction. If any institution could manage a safe plan for in-person instruction, it would be Harvard with its endowment of over $40 billion dollars. But if any Harvard students decide that remote learning is not for them, the school has a substantial wait-list to draw from. I'd be surprised if many made that choice since the value of attending Harvard is ... attending Harvard. And they'd still be doing that, remote or not.
In an article for Business Insider, NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway explores how this bifurcation is likely to kneecap vulnerable colleges (a worksheet he built uses available data on 436 U.S. colleges and universities to make some predictions about how they'll fare during the pandemic). Most institutions can't handle big swings in tuition payments. Attempts to start school with in-person instruction are necessary gambles for them, despite the risk to students, staff, and the residents of the college towns that many of these colleges are situated in.
The rapid innovation and development happening in the education technology sector right now has some promise to do something new: expand access to quality education at reduced prices. As a high school teacher, I'm currently drowning in a wave of cleverly named technology platforms and services (all of them "game changers"). I'm sure that some will be flops while others end up being tools I'll use well into the future. Most teachers and parents know that technology has severe limitations when it comes to educating young learners or those with disabilities. But technology thoughtfully applied could double or triple the number of students that have access to higher education.
Elite universities in the U.S. are behaving like luxury brands; they have no incentive to increase supply (enrollment) since that would actually hurt their brands. The pandemic will likely strengthen them as their competitors crumble, in much the way that the Walmarts and Amazons of the world are thriving on our country's misery at the expense of smaller businesses. The question is, what will the non-elite educational institutions look like in five years? Will any find a way to abandon the amenity arms race and instead embrace providing affordable and quality education to more students, probably through the creative use of technology? Is there a model for educating and credentialing young people that prepares them for real jobs and doesn't saddle them with crushing debt?
The pandemic has taught us just how exceptional our elite educational institutions are. Far from vigorous advocates for an educated society, they appear content to consolidate their positions, service the privileged, and weather the storm. I hope that whatever schools emerge from the wreckage can point the way towards affordable options that will give vastly more students the opportunity for quality post-secondary education.