The Elite “College Experience” is Not Compatible with Covid-19

There are two different but related stories about higher ed and Covid-19 right now, both of which speak to the stark differences within the hierarchy of universities and online teaching. And spoiler alert: students and faculty elite universities do not like online courses one little bit.

I think this article sums it up for the lawsuits being filed by some students against their universities: From ABC News, “College students clamor for tuition refunds after coronavirus shutters campuses.” The complaints basically boil down to two things: demanding refunds for fees paid on things students can no longer use (dorms, meal plans, lab fees, etc.); demanding their money back for tuition for classes that were forced to go online. It is worth noting these are class action lawsuits being ginned up by some law firms who appear to specialize in these kinds of class action things.

Then there are the calls from university presidents to get back to campus. There was Purdue President Mitch Daniel’s plans for getting Purdue back on campus in the fall, which (as reported in USA Today here) includes a vague goal of separating folks based on age, with the goal of “keeping the university’s younger population separate from older demographic groups that are more at risk from the virus. ‘Literally, our students pose a far greater danger to others than the virus poses to them,’ he wrote.” Also this weekend is an op-ed in the New York Times “College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall. Here’s How We Do It,” by Christina Paxson. Paxson is the President of Brown University and an economist by training. Among other things, she wrote:

As amazing as videoconferencing technology has become, students face financial, practical and psychological barriers as they try to learn remotely. This is especially true for lower-income students who may not have reliable internet access or private spaces in which to study. If they can’t come back to campus, some students may choose — or be forced by circumstances — to forgo starting college or delay completing their degrees.

First off, I think students certainly ought to get a refund for housing, meal plans, lab fees, and all of those things– and I think most universities are doing something like that. But with tuition, we start to get into a more murky territory.

Granted, a class that shifted into the online lifeboat to finish the term is not the same as it would have been if it had stayed face to face all year. But if the goal was to complete the courses and thus grant students credit for their course work so they could continue to make progress on their degrees or to graduate, there weren’t a lot of other alternatives. In fact, it seems to me a very fair response from universities to these lawsuits would be something along the lines of “Here’s a refund for your tuition, but you aren’t going to get any credit for those courses.” Somehow I don’t think that’s what these students and their lawyers have in mind.

As far as Daniels and Paxson go: I think everyone is hoping that universities open in the fall, though as I’ve heard repeatedly from various talking head experts on cable news, the virus is driving the timeline and no one knows what the conditions will be in September. If we’re still in a world where we’re supposed to stay 6 feet apart, wear masks, and generally distance ourselves from each other, then the re-opening is going to be partial at best. And the idea that we can separate younger students from older faculty (will faculty be teaching behind a plexiglass barrier? will they be zooming in to classrooms filled with students?) is kind of goofy.

But I think these complaints and plans really highlight three long-standing realities in higher education in this country right now.

First, students/faculty/presidents/etc. at elite universities have very different assumptions about what “the college experience” means, at least compared to the rest of us. For elite universities and/or colleges and universities that cater to upper-middle-class and above 18-22 year olds, taking classes is just not what it’s all about. Don’t get me wrong, the quality of academics at elite institutions is extremely high and that’s still the main reason why these students attend these schools. But it’s also a whole lifestyle of dorms or near campus apartments, sporting events, frats and sororities and clubs, parties, beautiful buildings and campuses, etc.

We have all of those things at EMU too, and for a lot of the students we have in that 18-22 year old demographic, those things are important. But most of our students come from the sort of backgrounds where they do not assume all these things are that necessary, at least not compared to the students at the University of Michigan just across town. Frankly, a lot of our students are a lot more involved in the campus life in Ann Arbor than they are at EMU.

Most of my students– some of the 18-22 year olds, almost all of the older students– don’t have time for these extras because they are working. And I don’t mean “working” the way a lot of the students at UM work, with a part-time job to make some beer money and maybe help out with the expenses mostly being covered by the parents. No, I mean working to pay for living: rent, cars, mortgages, kids, etc.

Look, I get it. I was exactly like these elite university students when I was in college at the University of Iowa, and my wife was more or less a student like this at Virginia Tech. Our son was one of these students at the University of Michigan. If online classes were a thing in my day, I might have taken one– and I did actually take a correspondence course to earn enough credits to graduate, a story I tell in my book More Than a Moment.  For all of us, our undergraduate days were important life-shaping times because of the whole “college life” experience. But this is not the only way to go to college, and to suggest otherwise is a good example of unchecked or unnoticed privilege.

This leads to my second point: elite universities don’t like online classes because they are not the college experience (see above) and they still believe online classes are for poor people. That quote from Paxson is disingenuous because she must certainly know the students most likely to take online courses are indeed lower-income students. Why? Because students with less money and more grown-up obligations come to places like EMU, or they attend a completely online university, maybe even one of the mega-universities (Southern New Hampshire, for example) that have been doing high quality online education for years and years.

And online education works. We’ve done research on this for years. In general, the data suggests any college course which a) is routinely taught in a large lecture hall format or taught as a small (less than 40, but ideally about 20) group discussion; b) is primarily based on reading, discussion, writing, quizzes, and tests, and c) does not involve any special equipment (e.g., a chemistry lab, a kiln, a potter’s wheel, a welding torch, etc.) or that requires hands-on practice (e.g., medical procedures, cosmetology or barbering, engine repair, etc.) can be taught online just as effectively as it can be taught face to face. I do realize there are a lot of important college courses that fall into the “c” category of things and can’t be offered exclusively online. I do not think I’d be comfortable undergoing surgery by a physician who trained exclusively online. But thought-out and carefully planned online courses work in the majority of subjects and college classrooms.

Plus most college students– certainly those who attend community colleges and regional universities like EMU– have been taking classes online for a long time. Roughly speaking, almost a third of U.S. college students have taken at least one online course. About 15-20% of college students are taking courses exclusively online, and these online courses and programs are no longer just the products of sketchy for-profits.

But the perception is still there, particularly among the elites, that online courses are for “not real” and/or for poor people. It reminds me a bit of what was going in in the realm of MOOCs a few years ago: all these elite universities were developing these MOOCs they were hoping to somehow monetize by getting students to pay for credit to transfer to another college. But these same institutions were very clear that they would not accept MOOC credit for their students: that is, the University of Michigan is completely fine with students from say EMU paying for their MOOCs and then having that class count as transfer credit, but there was no way UM was going to accept MOOC credit, even when the MOOC was developed and taught by the same faculty teaching the face to face version of the UM course.

Last but not least, Higher Education is going to need a bigger bail-out and some kind of government intervention to change the funding model. This is an issue I am certain Daniels, Paxson, and (at least some of the) students suing would probably agree about. Costs in higher education have been driven up for decades for lots of reasons, but what that means now is so-called public universities have the same business model as private universities. EMU is in the same boat as Brown because most of our revenue comes from tuition, and, as Paxson put it, the loss in tuition revenue this fall, “…only a part of which might be recouped through online courses, would be catastrophic, especially for the many institutions that were in precarious financial positions before the pandemic. It’s not a question of whether institutions will be forced to permanently close, it’s how many.”

And in the medium to long term, I think we need to get to a place where public universities receive most of their funding from the government, and we need to really get over the idea that higher education is defined by the “college experience” of the elites and flagships. The feds and the states (and ultimately tax payers) are going to have to step up and fund higher education so that tuition can be reduced.

But more funding from government will (and should) come with restrictions on how that money is spent, and a lot of the money we waste in higher education in this country– sports, luxurious dorms and recreation facilities, and so forth– are what the elites and flagships out there see as part of the college experience. And that is a problem for the Browns and Purdues of the world: why would a student pay whatever it costs to go to Brown to take online classes (even temporarily) if that student could take a similar online class from a regional university or community college for significantly less money?

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