Opinion: Let’s fix college first, before rushing to reopen campuses

COVID-19 will mean the end of the traditional college experience for many. Here are nine ways to reimagine higher education for the future.

Opinion: Let’s fix college first, before rushing to reopen campuses
[Photo: Sincerely Media/Unsplash]

Every May 1, millions of students and their families celebrate “National Decision Day” by submitting final college and university decisions. I still remember that overwhelming feeling of possibility nearly two decades later.


But this year was different. As colleges have crafted carefully nuanced notes of optimism about reopening campuses in the fall, they have shifted the burden entirely on students to weigh highly uncertain disease risks for an on-campus college experience that may not even happen. Add to that taking on tens of thousands of dollars of debt amid Great Depression-level unemployment, and it’s no wonder that at least one in six college students are abandoning plans to enroll altogether.

That’s why it’s been bewildering to see university presidents such as Brown University’s Christine Paxson proclaim reopening college campuses is a national priority and that every student and their family must bear that risk. We now have clear indications that travel, large gatherings, and high population density all dramatically accelerate the spread of COVID-19. Pushing to reopen college campuses seems tone-deaf at best, and catastrophically self-serving at worst.

So how did we get here? Before considering reopening campuses, we have to question whether reviving a near-trillion-dollar national enterprise where tuition increases eight times faster than wage growth, yet 43% of students graduate underemployed while shouldering $1.7 trillion dollars of debt should actually be a national priority.


Pushing to reopen college campuses seems tone-deaf at best, and catastrophically self-serving at worst.”

For 10 years before COVID-19, colleges ramped spending by 37%, despite states cutting budgets. This included dramatic increases in nonteaching costs such as administrators, researchers, and shiny facilities to help bolster rankings that attract more full-paying students from out-of-state and abroad.

Colleges have funded deficits by passing the bill directly to students. In fact, college is now unaffordable to virtually every student. Currently, 85% of students get some form of financial aid, and 70% of students graduate with average debt approaching $30,000.

For all that spending, tuition, and debt, only 60% of students graduate, 36% of graduates with debt say college isn’t worth it, and over 25% earn the same or less as those with a high school degree.


COVID-19 is exposing the house of cards

As the pandemic ravages state budgets, colleges may see funding shortfalls even larger than the 25% cuts they experienced in 2008. Many face potentially catastrophic enrollment uncertainty, risks to multiple revenue streams, and material erosion on balance sheets. These factors have led Moody’s to downgrade the entire sector and Bob Zemsky, University of Pennsylvania professor and coauthor of The College Stress Test, to predict that at least 20% of colleges (i.e. 1,200 of the 6,600+ American colleges) now face severe market risk.

Unless you are in the 2% of institutions that hold 74% of endowment funds, COVID-19 will force a long-overdue reorganization of the higher education cost structure tied to physical campuses, especially for smaller colleges serving low-income students. Paxson’s fear that “higher education will crumble” does not seem far-fetched.

So, why isn’t reopening college campuses the solution?

For one, while large and wealthy institutions such as Paxson’s can afford her proposal of “test, trace, and separate,” it’s hard to imagine cash-strapped colleges financing high-volume medical testing, PPE, and increased housing, dining, and hospital capacity—not to mention hazard pay and quarantine leave for essential workers.


Even if we fund those measures, it’s even harder to imagine students incurring crippling debt to participate in “virtual social activities replacing parties” and stadium lectures. Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, which has over 130,000 online students, said it best. “If you were to design a place to make sure that everyone gets the virus, it would look like a nursing home or a campus.”

What Now? College After COVID-19

Rather than anchor to idyllic quadrangles, colleges must embrace digital learning. This means bold and necessary evolutions to their business models and curriculums that genuinely serve students’ immediate and long-term well-being.

Here are nine ways we can start fixing America’s broken higher education system together:

  1. Reset curriculums to improve employment opportunities. In New America’s survey, 91% of students list improving employment opportunities as a top reason for attending college. It’s time we listen to them. This means tuition resets, job-ready curriculum, shorter degrees, and partnerships to connect job seekers with growing industries—particularly ones that accommodate remote working opportunities.
  2. Bite the bullet and dramatically overhaul costs. Tools such as financial exigency can help address bloat and set a higher bar for costly administrators and disengaged staff, which may be as high as 67% of tenured faculty.
  3. Liberate instructors to design new courses across platforms and collaborate on best practices. This is the single biggest opportunity to learn how to scale personalized online learning across colleges and universities.
  4. Unlock endowments to put cash directly into the pockets of students, families, and campus workers. A temporary regulatory reprieve allowing direct transfers will ensure that colleges aren’t just admitting those who can pay full tuition.
  5. Invest in holistic anti-poverty student support. Connecting students with social services they otherwise would have had on-campus will increase student retention and revenue, especially as one in four undergraduate students has children.
  6. Provide reskilling resources to essential on-campus workers. Many subcontracted campus workers, kitchens, janitors, IT staff, and other hourly employees cannot work from home.
  7. Make the internet a public utility. Only two-thirds of rural homes have high-speed internet, and many low-income families don’t own tablets, laptops, or desktop computers. We must immediately end the digital divide for online learning to work for college students and the rising high school students behind them.
  8. Embrace the internet’s power of community building. We have seen virtual concerts, virtual commencements, and even virtual campuses. Incentivize students to build a new way of learning together.
  9. Partner with hotels to create safe learning environments and local meetups. We can still work toward in-person interaction among students in the same cities and states.

Shaan Hathiramani is the founder and CEO of Flockjay, an online sales academy for job seekers from nontraditional and underrepresented backgrounds.