At the end of 2019, I argued that the West’s higher education system will not sink into irrelevance amidst the torrent of digital competitors, whatever the techno-boosters say, because universities have survived wars and plagues that decimated entire economies. YouTube tutorials and Joe Rogan’s podcast are a bagatelle by comparison.
Now it’s 2020. War has yet to erupt, but nature has decided once again to challenge universities with a plague. Universities have survived plagues before, ones far worse than COVID-19. So, on the one hand, it’s reasonable to assume that universities will outlast the threat of the novel coronavirus; less a bagatelle than Joe Rogan’s podcast but not as severe as the bubonic plague before antibiotics.
On the other hand, colleges in 2020 don’t look like colleges in the early 20th century. The contemporary trajectory of higher education has deprived universities of the strong defenses that once secured their survival. Rumblings from within the academy signal that the economic shock of COVID-19 may indeed strike a long term blow unless radical changes are made. The University of Oregon has proposed cuts to faculty salaries; Missouri Western State University has cut programs and laid off tenured professors; even Johns Hopkins University has told its employees to prepare for austerity. Like the slash-and-burn firings that financial institutions executed to stay alive in 2008, universities are slashing their expenditures before all hell breaks loose.
But why would all hell break loose? What have our colleges done wrong—how badly have they been mismanaged?—that a year online and another recession have become lethal hazards? In the long and even middle term, the coronavirus won’t change the durable fact that young men and women want to acquire an edge in life’s status game. The business model that has girded universities for a hundred years—selling prestige, social networks, and maybe a few skills to young strivers—should be fundamentally stable. So, if higher education falters in its response to the coronavirus and risks institutional instability in the face of a moderate societal threat (at worst), it will signal its own irrelevance loud and clear. The next generation of strivers could lose faith in universities as institutions that grant meaningful prestige. What are universities good for, after all, if not to help solve problems like the coronavirus?
As it is, a crisis of faith has beset higher education for decades. Critics from all corners of the ideological compass have questioned the role played by and the legitimacy of higher education in the life of the polis. Once drivers of innovation and centers for a robust exchange of ideas, Western colleges, Wael Taji writes, are now a synonym for sclerotic institutions. An excellent way for universities to prove their critics right is to cower, bicker, and count pennies in the face of the pandemic.
Universities that overcome their own sclerotic bloat and manage to lead a charge against the pandemic may, in contrast, prove their worth to regional and national communities. But that task is going to take a dynamism and institutional nimbleness that many universities simply do not possess. Certainly, given the rhetoric about higher education’s declining relevance—exemplified by the Thiel Fellowship for not attending college—serious universities will at least recognize the coronavirus for what it is: an opportunity to reassert their role as epicenters of intellectual and practical advances, whether or not they can capitalize on it.
They will spot the social capital that could be regained by becoming the first spaces secured from the virus—local Green Zones earned through a smart deployment of the human resources that all universities claim to possess. As state leadership falters in its response not only to the virus but to the recent outburst of racial unrest, universities have an opportunity to accomplish locally what has proven impossible to accomplish nationally and to exhibit their autonomy as competent leaders.
Some institutions may take advantage of this once-in-a-century chance. The University of Arizona, for example, has sauntered up to the plate and announced its plan to offer antibody testing to all 60,000 faculty, staff, and students. A good start. However, the reality on the ground is that most collegiate institutions are ill-equipped to pass a test of institutional robustness. Now that “stay home” has emerged as the standard response to the virus, the professoriate has largely signaled an unwillingness to return to campus or even to strategize what a safe return might look like. And to be fair, administrators who have declared campus open for business in Fall 2020 have done little to assure faculty (or students) that their open campus will be virus-free.
A localized South Korea–style coronavirus response will require strong managerial leadership and open lines of communication. But there is no real administrative hierarchy on any given campus, only a maze of semi-autonomous departments and support units headed by semi-autonomous leaders with competing interests. This lack of governance cohesion—a direct result of administrative bloat—works against developing a strong, centralized, and implementable coronavirus plan. Even in normal times, getting departments and administrative units to work together on a common project is notoriously difficult. Entropy is the rule, dynamism the exception on university campuses.
For colleges with pre-existing financial conditions, the coming coronavirus failure may result in insolvency. For everyone else, it will serve as a very public and inescapable justification of higher education’s critics—maybe not the final nail in the coffin of academia’s legitimacy but at least a long row of nails.
To be sure, creating a local campus Green Zone would be one of the most difficult tasks undertaken by universities since the Second World War. It may well be an impossible task. What is shocking, however, is the binary response that has emerged instead: either a total opening with few to no safeguards (beyond vague promises from administrators to allow at-risk faculty and students to stay online) or a total closure for the 2020-21 school year. The unspoken assumption seems to be that trying and failing to implement a campus Green Zone plan will be worse than doing nothing. This attitude is, of course, exactly the one that a rigid, unadaptable, panicky institution would take.
If administrators and faculty have decided not to seize the opportunity to display their university’s institutional excellence, they at least recognize the short term financial exigency to keep enrollment numbers from dropping. The concern is that students will neither begin, nor continue their degree programs amid the pandemic due to any number of medical or financial concerns; and the fact is that nearly all universities—public and private—rely not only on tuition but on an active, open campus to stay solvent.
Higher education’s primary income streams are tuition, state funding, endowments, and what the National Center for Education Statistics calls “other” revenue streams (residence and dining halls, attached hospitals, private and federal contracts, alumni giving, sports revenue, and so on). A look at the numbers reveals that private non-profit universities receive 32 percent of their revenue from the “other” category, 31 percent from tuition, 18 percent from endowments, and 12 percent from state funding. Public universities receive 41 percent of their revenue from state funding, 28 percent from “other,” 20 percent from tuition and fees, and 4 percent from endowments.
These numbers are averages. A report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association shows that reliance on tuition and other non-state funding varies widely across public institutions, especially when state funding is calculated not in aggregate but in dollars spent on day-to-day educational operations (that is, when ignoring university expenditures on capital improvement projects and debt servicing). According to their calculations, upwards of 75 percent of per-student educational spending comes from tuition at the least subsidized state systems; across all public institutions, 46 percent of per-student spending comes from tuition, fees, and room and board.
In aggregate, these numbers suggest that tuition and “other” revenue streams, many of which rely on an open campus, emerge as the major income sources for American universities. Tuition alone accounts for 20 percent of revenue at even well-supported state schools to upwards of 60 percent at tuition-reliant private universities, such as New York University and the small private liberal arts colleges that dot the southern and eastern parts of the United States. For schools reliant not only on tuition but full residence halls, the need to open campus in fall is particularly pronounced. At public universities, state subsidies are a secondary but still vital source of funding.
But states are drowning in a sea of red ink following months of economic shutdown. New York’s tax receipts fell by 68 percent in April. In Illinois, personal income tax revenue could fall by 14 to 33 percent. California could face a $54 billion shortfall, the largest budget deficit faced by any state in history (though, as Steven Malanga argues, the Golden State’s tarnished budget may have been exacerbated rather than caused by pandemic lockdowns). Every public institution in the nation—from major flagships to directional state colleges—knows its capitol subsidizers could mandate cuts to the marrow amid these enormous drops in state revenues.
Like state funding for public universities, endowments for private universities are likewise vulnerable to economic shocks. Endowments are diversified, but during the aftermath of the Great Recession, even Harvard University’s nearly $40 billion endowment declined 27 percent. Because economic stability is not likely to return in the near term, university endowments will decline along with everyone else’s portfolios. Moody’s has issued a warning about university finances (they had already done so pre-pandemic for many small liberal arts institutions); Global S&P Ratings now gives 38 percent of its rated universities a “negative” outlook, up from 9 percent at the end of 2019.
There is an additional factor in play as colleges make decisions about the upcoming school year: a vital resource that can buy leverage for (some) universities against pandemic uncertainty. That resource is a school’s reputation within the higher education pecking order. The more prestige a university retains in the public imagination, the more it can confidently assume that students will not pause their degree programs, that endowments will be large enough to absorb losses, and that alumni may be more inclined to increase their giving in a show of solidarity.
A potential antibody against the coronavirus’s effects, prestige is nonetheless divided unequally among academic institutions. Cambridge University, for instance, has self-assuredly announced its decision to remain closed in Fall 2020. Cambridge is freer than other schools to make this choice and risk enrollment attrition because, first of all, tuition is a trivial source of income at Cambridge. Research grants, private assessment services, and even its university publishing arm provide more revenue than tuition and student fees. To this equation Cambridge can also factor in the benefit of its elite status; its board is rightly confident that few students will drop out of Cambridge University simply because they go online for a term or two. Not many students are willing to give up the reputation bestowed by a Cambridge acceptance, even if it means a subpar Cambridge experience.
Johns Hopkins University, in contrast, seems less willing to rely on its academic stature to keep students enrolled. Without a doubt, Johns Hopkins exists at the center of American academia. One can assume a term online will not send enrollment numbers into freefall. However, unlike Cambridge, Johns Hopkins faces a major threat to another income source—its attached hospital system, which took an enormous hit as elective procedures were canceled in preparation for COVID-19. JHU plans to reopen campus in fall. Against the backdrop of losses from hospital revenue, the university’s decision-makers have presumably decided not to gamble on tuition attrition, as trivial as it would be given the school’s reputation. Such is the financial uncertainty at even America’s most elite colleges.
Further down the status totem pole, Western Missouri State University provides an example of an institution with pre-existing conditions that the pandemic is simply accelerating. According to Inside Higher Ed, the college has faced over a 20 percent reduction in students during the previous decade while tuition has remained flat. What may have amounted to a slow burn of losses over the next decade has turned into sudden attrition in the face of pandemic induced uncertainty. In total, 25 percent of MWSU’s full-time faculty will be gone by 2021. Programs on the chopping block include everything from history to economics. And while the school can continue to rely on minimal state subsidies, small private colleges facing similar enrollment trends will risk bankruptcy if the coronavirus keeps a non-trivial percentage of students at home in the coming semesters.
Universities must navigate this complex amalgam of revenue streams, threats to revenue, and status realities to make decisions. Across the board, however, campuses that stay functionally closed will be staring down the same fate that threatens any business under extended lockdown: financial anemia at best or infeasibility at worst. No wonder administrators want to throw open the doors, whether or not they’ve developed a plan to keep their campus as safe as possible. Offering lackluster online education and failing to provide the social and professional networks that universities can only provide in fleshspace, higher education—even schools with ample amounts of prestige—may risk insolvency in the short term or lose legitimacy after the pandemic has faded (perhaps at a ten- or twenty-year horizon) as the West loses faith in collegiate institutions as centers of social, political, and intellectual life.
After all, what would a year or two of mass online education mean? Almost overnight, as far as the public image is concerned, it would turn large swaths of academia into the University of Phoenix, as everything from liberal arts colleges to flagship universities suddenly provide an education identical to for-profit online schools: institutions that exist on paper or behind screens, offering videos and discussion boards in exchange for a credential. There is no indication that the pandemic will do anything to stop the job market’s demand for a bachelor’s degree as an entry-level credential for white-collar work. But if academia by and large decides it’s going online until a vaccine is available, then what’s the difference, at the end of the day, between one online credentialing mechanism and another? Aside from the Harvards, Cambridges, and Berkeleys of the world, the vast majority of online-only universities will be inseparable. University of State, Directional College, Liberal Arts Academy—what’s the difference? Students will simply flock to whichever program is cheapest or offers the quickest path to the credential.
From Grand Canyon University to Southern New Hampshire University, the trend for schools to go all-in on mass online education—trading their local, on-campus prestige for a national audience and a lot more money—is already underway. While this trend may be salutary for schools that would otherwise go bankrupt, institutions higher up the academic pecking order would presumably rather keep their prestige and stay out of the mass-market game. Hence, again, the demand to reopen campus. Smart administrators know that, in the long run, local or regional prestige offers more institutional longevity than the mass-market model. There are, in the end, a limited number of students across North America (and even globally). If thousands of universities suddenly find themselves competing online for a limited set of students, there will be the inevitable winners and losers. A Purdue or an Emory could fade in the long term if they adopt this model, whereas retaining regional prestige could ensure centuries of continued operations.
If universities whose names aren’t Harvard or Cambridge have any interest in holding onto their regional or national prestige-granting powers—if they have any interest in being more than another mass-market online school that offers online videos in exchange for a white-collar credential—they should be using this summer not to find ways to slash budgets but to develop the best coronavirus response they can muster. It will, as noted, be extremely difficult and perhaps impossible to accomplish. But ideas are already emerging, and it would be foolish to do nothing while other, more nimble businesses and institutions return and thrive in the coming year.
Anxious times call for cool and calculated leadership. This is a perfect moment for universities to step up and provide it. Universities all through the status hierarchy should rally their resources, both human and capital, to make their campuses coronavirus free—think Singapore or South Korea. Assertive safety protocols and a bit of health theater are the only ways to ensure a confident return of domestic and international students and wary faculty. The goal for each school, in other words, must be to turn its entire campus into something like a local Green Zone.
We know what can be done to keep coronavirus transmission to a minimum: contact tracing, individual quarantines, mass testing, mass antibody testing, and perhaps sewage monitoring (which may predict an outbreak by up to a week). All these tactics have vexed national and state leaders. But implementing locally what larger institutions have struggled to implement nationally should be viable for universities that pride themselves on their intellectual excellence and scientific capabilities. Executing a South Korea-style pandemic protocol—and demonstrating its success with minimal COVID-19 cases by the end of Fall 2020—will not only gird universities’ chances of fiscal survival but, more importantly, will reaffirm higher education’s role as an incubator of ideas, a repository of the brightest minds, and a vision of what humanity at its best can achieve.
The University of Arizona was already mentioned. In early May, its president announced plans to roll out antibody testing for all 60,000 faculty, staff, and students, calling his plan “a model for other colleges and universities as they try and reopen their campuses.” The university already produces materials for COVID-19 kits, so, presumably, a test for the virus itself is something the university can provide. But given the large number of asymptomatic cases, identifying those who have already been infected by the virus is an equally important step toward expediting a safe reopening. As Arizona’s president Robert Robbins explains, widespread antibody testing will allow university residents and employees to know who has or has not developed immunity to the virus. This knowledge, along with testing and quarantine of symptomatic patients, will “significantly reduce concerns about someone’s ability to contract or spread the virus on our campus…[Antibody testing] is a quick, cost-efficient means of helping Arizona students assess their level of risk.” COVID-19 testing for the sick; antibody testing for everyone else. It’s a good formula. Allowing the antibody-positive to advertise their immunity somehow would go another step toward making campus feel safer.
To widespread testing, a university can add many other strategies viable for any institution that has its management practices in order. Temperature monitors can be placed at each building and dorm entrance; paid student workers can be used for this work. A school can partner with the local utilities district and a local lab or hospital to monitor campus sewage, getting a jump on any spike in COVID-19 levels detected. It can, of course, require masks in all enclosed spaces. It can move courses outside where possible. It can begin courses several weeks early, so that the semester finishes before a presumed winter return of the virus. The list of ideas grows larger by the week.
One of the harder challenges to meet is how to control the virus on campus when students, faculty, staff, and logistics personnel (e.g., food delivery trucks) are constantly coming and going. This will be a more difficult problem for commuter than for residential campuses, but in both cases, a draconian hand will be required: no travel outside the city during the semester; 14-day quarantine for anyone who does travel outside the city (and the university must, of course, secure a quarantine space, either in defunct dorms, local motels, or hospitals); and cell-phone tracking for both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases (who will have been discovered through widespread testing!).
Most Americans bristle at the idea of the state tracking their cell phones, but the majority of students will likely resign themselves to being tracked by their local university as a precondition of enrollment. Cell phone tracking seems to be a major component in East Asia’s success in controlling the virus, so, if it were pitched as a necessary (and temporary) ingredient in an overall Green Zone plan, COVID-19 positive students and faculty may not only resign themselves to being tracked but do so willingly. Universities will likely need to expand the IT department’s budget to implement a cell phone tracking protocol, but for such an essential component of a safety plan, no expense should be spared.
Students or faculty who have come into contact with a COVID-19 positive individual will of course be tested immediately. If quarantine is necessary at any time (due to a positive test or due to travel outside the accepted limits), students will simply need to communicate with their professors and stay caught up on coursework via email until they no longer test positive, which, in most cases, should be only a few weeks. (Faculty across North America can admit that every course ends up having one or two students who disappear and return during the semester, so this will be nothing new.) Faculty who must quarantine will need to hand materials to an adjunct or lecturer, who will take over the course for a few weeks and whose pay will be prorated accordingly.
Logistics visitors—delivery drivers and such—needn’t be tracked, but they will need to submit to a temperature check before entering campus, and perhaps they should be targeted for more regular virus and antibody testing than the campus community. A university, after all, cannot be as draconian with non-affiliated workers as it can be with employees and students. Of course, a nimble and dynamic university would commit itself to sourcing food and other necessities from local vendors, within city or regional limits, so that even their “outside” visitors are by and large from the community.
For universities with fewer capital resources than are necessary for a full and safe re-opening, a hybrid approach is still better than going fully online, as long as it provides students a reason to be on campus each week. Erik Simpson of Grinnell University imagines a scenario where large lectures are moved online—Zoom being a perfect medium for one-to-many communication—while classrooms become meeting spaces for small study groups led by professors or lecturers. More meetings with fewer students would rearrange the normal timeline of university operations, but it would also give students more personal facetime with their teachers.
Another hybrid strategy includes offering an online and an on-campus track for each course, so that faculty and students who want to return can do so, while those with pre-existing conditions don’t feel pressured to do the same. It would be an IT and logistical nightmare, but it shouldn’t be impossible to add an Online/On Campus option into the course enrollment system; universities could then hire more lecturers if necessary or merge online options where possible (e.g., three or four large sections of Sophomore English or College Algebra instead of dozens). I imagine this sort of hybrid approach will be more manageable than it seems. The reality is that the majority of students want to return, and that wary students can be convinced with uncompromising and well-supported safety policies. As far as at-risk faculty are concerned, exemptions can be made on a case-by-case basis; asking older faculty or those with pre-existing conditions to teach online for the 2020-21 school year could even be part of the overall campus Green Zone plan.
An additional concern related to enrollment is that students or their parents may have lost jobs and found themselves unable to afford tuition. To address that particular issue, aggressive tuition reduction or scholarship programs should be made available. Each campus or system will need to calculate how aggressive it can be given other financial exigencies, but most universities can afford to “make up in bulk” what it loses from an individual tuition check, if reduced tuition means steady or even rising enrollment numbers. The University of Nebraska system, for example, has declared that anyone whose family earns less than $60,000 per year will now receive a full-tuition scholarship. It has also committed to a two-year freeze in tuition hikes for everyone else. Like many universities, Nebraska earns as much if not more from students living in residence halls, eating in dining halls, and buying books from bookstores as it does from tuition; if it will hedge against enrollment losses, it makes sense to waive tuition to ensure that these “other” revenue streams will remain steady or even grow during the pandemic.
Examples such as the Universities of Nebraska and Arizona—and professors such as Dr. Simpson—show that there is an appetite, locally at least, for academic dynamism, nimbleness, and leadership in the face of the coronavirus. However, the overall institutional reality discussed earlier means that these examples are few and far between. The reality, to reiterate, is that most collegiate institutions are ill-equipped to pass a test of institutional robustness and leadership. Forget leadership—there is even evidence that universities are feigning their commitment to reopening in fall, and simply waiting to announce an online semester until the enrollment checks have been cashed. Also, few administrators have the stomach for implementing the admittedly draconian policies necessary for a full test-and-trace protocol. And the university is not a hierarchy but a patchwork of autonomous units; all it takes is one reticent dean or department chair for an otherwise solid plan to fall apart entirely.
The deeper problem is the rigidity that plagues too many universities. The source of this problem is that the fundamental work of the West’s institutions of higher learning has been tainted with perverse incentives. The core concern of nearly everyone on campus—from lowly assistant professors to top administrators—is how to secure funding (or how to land publications and tenure), rather than how to solve social and scientific problems. The workflow has been reversed. Rather than asking essential questions or inquiring into worthwhile puzzles (however that statement is construed across different disciplines) and believing that financial support will follow good work, as a matter of course, academia now concerns itself first and foremost with landing the financial support, then dressing up its intellectual work in whatever costumes necessary in order to secure that support. Follow the trail of replication crises, retracted papers, and research fraud to see what happens when the money—and the individual prestige that comes along with it—becomes more important than what the money is supposed to be for.
Because the fundamental academic question has become How can I get money to solve this? rather than How can I solve this?, it is no wonder that, collectively, academia seems unable to pool its resources to solve a problem. Its chief concern is, once again, the money. As it stands, then, the pandemic looks to separate the true institutions of higher learning from the credential granting corporations. Universities that work to solve the problem of keeping campuses coronavirus free can confidently assume that tuition dollars will follow. Universities that scramble to adjust balance sheets in order to survive a year of online-only education—that is, universities who put the money before the problem—can be sure that enrollment attrition will indeed be a self-inflicted crisis.
For universities who believe they have the prestige to retain paying customers without offering the services paid for, or the financial security to risk short term attrition—we cannot begrudge their decision to stay locked down. For other institutions, however, the online approach is financially risky and, more detrimentally, sets a bad precedent for higher education. It signals to students, faculty, and regional communities that their university is not up to the task of keeping its own campus safe; it signals that its human resources are not so resourceful after all; it signals that the West’s crisis of faith in its university system is more founded than academics want to admit. Federal and private organizations may be willing to continue sending grant money, but if students no longer want to pay to partake in whatever universities are spending it on, then the entire game is over. No university in North America (and only a few in Europe) can operate as pure research institutions without student tuition, residence halls, or alumni giving.
It’s true that some campus Green Zone strategies will work better than others; some strategies will be more or less feasible at different campuses; some strategies will fail; and it’s imperative that online options be made available for at-risk faculty and students. But for universities up and down the status hierarchy, the spirit of the approach should be to meet COVID-19 as a challenge, not to retreat until it passes them over, or to pray they won’t succumb to it. To repeat the basic argument: the best thing a university can do right now is to turn itself into a local safe zone by pooling and managing its fiscal and human resources and implementing on-campus what only a few nations have managed to implement at a large scale. In the process, a university will prove its worth to the community and exhibit what’s possible when human minds from diverse disciplines work together. Such an institution will be valued and emulated, its position at the center of social, political, and intellectual life secured.
It remains to be seen, however, which institutions possess the substance to match this vaunted rhetoric about the value of Western academia. For those institutions that have decided they are not up to the task, they can look forward to becoming just another mass-market online educator, one more commercial on daytime TV competing for whatever students they can get.