One of the many troubling issues impacted by the pandemic is the future of higher education. Virtually every college has either shut down or provided instruction online during the last few months of the school year. Will colleges provide a different kind of educational experience moving forward? Seems to me the answer is a resounding probably.
The state of college education was not perfect before the virus ruined our lives. Millions of past and current students incurred extraordinarily large student loans. Many politicians are proposing that this debt be forgiven or restructured, yet another prospective entitlement that the US government may not be able to afford.
The classes some students take have not been helpful in finding rewarding employment after graduation. Arts and letters courses do not provide the academic knowledge most corporations are looking for in new recruits. The result has been over-qualified graduates in low paying jobs.
So, let’s agree that the educational system was ripe for change. School administrators were considering a plethora of significant modifications even before the virus reared its ugly head.
When you think about the settings of most large campuses, you probably have a vision of an idyllic place of learning with scores of students mingling, studying and smiling.
Could there be a better place for a contagious disease to spread than colleges? Dorm rooms are mostly unkempt, multiple people reside in one suite, classrooms are crowded, the library is jammed each evening and the athletic facilities are places where viruses and bacteria can easily multiply. What about the social scene, where everyone is crowed into bars and party spaces?
The question is can students affectively learn remotely? This is a subject that has not been fully examined until now. Many elementary schools, high schools and colleges have taken to teaching via the Internet recently. It seems to work fine, especially for children that don’t need extra supervision. The young ones, maybe not so good.
Of course, the pandemic’s schooling system has a gigantic void- socialization. Being with others makes children more in tune with society where interfacing with others is so important, at least up to now. Is giving up the social part of education worth it if hundreds, thousands or millions of people can avoid getting sick and possibly die?
The older students are protesting the loss of social interaction in this new reality. In college and grad schools, in particular, students are crying out that their education is being diminished because they aren’t able to have face to face conversations with others, to build long-term relationships.
How will schools react? Will they decrease tuition? Room and board expenses would decrease if students studied from home. So, the total cost of attending college could go down materially, a good thing (for students, not for schools). Will foreign students continue to study in the US? This is important to colleges for several reasons. One is that these students pay full tuition and generally are not subsidized, so their tuition payments are important to schools. Secondly, not having international contribution on campus would be unfortunate for diversity reasons.
And now, it’s time for my observations and opinions. Notwithstanding the student debt problem, and students taking irrelevant classes that don’t help them at work, I think our educational system is excellent. There are problems affiliated with admission policies, income inequality and diversity. But, if you want your children to be educated to do something wonderful for their families and themselves, the US educational system is the best place in the world to learn. I would be happy if schools went back to the original structure after the pandemic is defeated.
On the other side, student debt has become a multi-trillion-dollar albatross for many young people and their parents. There are many things we can learn from the pandemic educational experience that could allay this growing problem. For those that don’t need a social experience, an online education should be far less expensive and be offered by the most prestigious schools.
Colleges should include a social experience, but the main objective is to be educated. I hope we make available some of the new techniques that have been developed to fight against the virus. And perhaps some children can do the requisite work in less time (three years instead of four) if they give up some of the un-productive social activities.