Schools and universities around the world are confronting the challenge of how to offer a meaningful education to their students while also protecting them from contagion. Nowhere is this issue more critical than the American university system, which is risking collapse across the United States because of a confluence of factors that point to a particularly American approach to higher education. These include social, economic, and cultural values that render the American university distinct from its European cousins, and particularly vulnerable to the crisis created by Covid-19.
To attend a 4-year American university generally requires a level of economic investment that is breathtaking to the rest of the world. Costs range widely, but a private university like Yale or Stanford can run to almost $80,000 a year, while a prestigious public university like the University of Michigan will cost a student from out of state over $70,000 a year (a typical undergraduate degree takes four years). A student from the state of Michigan pays less than half of that amount, but, unsurprisingly, the University of Michigan and many other high-profile public institutions have been accepting increasing numbers of out-of-state students at the expense of in-state ones because they bring in so much more revenue (Detroit News, 15 December 2019; New York Times, 2 July 2016). A consequence of these high prices is that the vast majority of students and their families must take out substantial loans to pay for their university education. The difficulty of repaying these loans has become its own economic crisis across the nation.
The extraordinary expense of an American university education comes from a variety of costs, including tuition, on-campus residence (obligatory for at least the first two years at many institutions), and other ancillary fees. These costs are explained by the perhaps uniquely American concept of what a university education should be. Students attend an institution of higher learning to acquire knowledge in a specific field, to be sure, but the idea of university education in the United States is much broader than simply this. The American university experience is supposed to be a transformative one that will shape young people into successful adults. The definition of that success may be ethical, economic, and/or cultural. The campus experience is designed to be immersive, a place where students live, eat, work, and play, and universities work hard to offer a variety of enticing options that contribute to the students’ investment in the campus community and their feeling of belonging to that community. Such options include cultural events ranging from lectures to concerts to theatrical productions, state-of-the-art gym facilities, clubs of every conceivable type, and, above all, sports.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of sports teams to American universities. Sports build “brand loyalty,” to their institutions that can border on the fanatical. Attending sporting events, both during one’s studies and as alumni, is a sacred part of most institutions of higher learning. Sports teams, especially American football, mean big business as well: a strong American football team can mean millions in revenue for the university, through tickets, marketing, and especially alumni loyalty, which translates into donations. This is why the University of Michigan spent $228 million to renovate its stadium, completed in 2010, a renovation that included an additional 83 luxury seats. The University of Notre Dame invested $400 million for a stadium renovation that was completed in 2017. Perhaps the most extraordinary case is Texas A&M University, which spent more than half a billion dollars renovating its football field in 2014 (CNN, 28 September 2018).
Students at American universities (and their parents) are consumers, paying a steep price for the education, stimulation, community future connections promised by these institutions. But what expectations might they have now, in the age of Covid-19? This past spring semester was a difficult one for all: students were unceremoniously sent home out of fear of contagion, with courses completed online. Now, universities face considerable pressure to reopen for financial (as well as political) reasons. Yet how can they justify the high cost of enrollment if the campus is closed? And even if the campus partially reopens, as has been proposed by many institutions, all mass gatherings, starting with sporting events, must be limited or cancelled altogether. Students will not be able to gather at the local diner, eat together in the cafeteria, study together in the library, or attend parties. They certainly will not be able to cheer their teams on from stadium seats. Above all, the university courses themselves will either be remote or a hybrid mix of limited on-site encounters and video lectures. Students and parents across the country are already asking themselves if enrollment on these terms is worth the enormous cost.
Students and their parents are not the only people expressing concern about the fall semester. So are professors. A recent opinion piece in the New York Times by a psychology professor scoffed at the notion that college students would be capable of following rules about limited groups and social distancing on campus for more than a few weeks. The professor went on to state that he has no intention of returning to campus to teach on-site classes, given the current surge of the Coronavirus. Faculty and staff at universities across the country have expressed concern about the safety of college campuses.
The catastrophic state of the U.S. response to the spread of Covid-19 has certainly not helped universities inspire confidence in their ability to guarantee a top educational experience in a safe living and learning environment. With cases surging yet again across many states, and the hostility of some Americans (and American leaders) to practicing and enforcing essential practices like social distancing and the use of masks, the likelihood of families feeling confident about sending their students back to a campus that lacks most of the benefits (sports, parties, lectures) that university tuition can buy, and where the educational experience will be inevitably diminished (online course, absent professors), is remote.
Thus, American higher education will likely confront a major crisis in the fall, as enrollment drops and families begin to wonder if the experience promised by the extraordinary financial investment that students and their families must make is truly worth it. Some will certainly decide it is not, with grave consequences for the universities’ bottom line. Northwestern University, for example, currently anticipates a $90 million shortfall for the 2020 fiscal year.
Can the American university survive?
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