How Will the Health Crisis Affect College Attendance?

Sarah Lawrence College professor Samuel J. Abrams wrote an interesting piece for The Dispatch the other day, in which he questioned whether or not, in the midst of the COVID-19 health crisis, students will show back up to school in the fall.

He’s specifically referring to college students, and he makes some pretty good points as to why only a fraction of them may be returning (or arriving for their first semester). In fact, you can probably guess some of his concerns, especially if you’ve been talking to freshly graduated high school seniors or current college students over the past couple of months.

The key issue is value. College is ridiculously (and often unjustifiably) expensive. And at a time when the economy is in steep decline, many colleges are not discounting their tuition… even as they announce burdensome (and unrealistic) distancing measures, restricted dormitories, the cancellation or postponement of sports and other extracurricular activities, and an unprecedented reliance on virtual learning.

In other words, many students would still be paying top-dollar for a college experience that isn’t really a college experience.

While it’s mostly fair game to slam colleges for the price of enrollment, it’s much harder to fault them (and other types of schools) for enacting safety precautions to protect their students and faculty from COVID-19. With any luck, improving health conditions might justify some of these institutions relaxing their current plans by, or shortly into, the fall semester.

But if they can’t provide the type of educational and social experiences that they normally do, many students (and their parents) are going to find it very hard to justify the expenditure… at least until things change. There are far more affordable options that already provide the type of offering that traditional universities will, for the time being, be limited to.

At the front of that list are online colleges. Despite the stigma sometimes associated with them, they tend to be quite good at virtual learning because that’s their entire model. They’ve been providing online courses for a long time, and have well-tested infrastructure in place to facilitate students at a higher virtual level than most brick and mortar schools.

As a parent of a high schooler and middle schooler, I can tell you that the transition from real classrooms to online classrooms in the last few weeks of the spring semester (again, due to the health crisis) has not been an easy or productive one. Not by a long-shot. Traditional universities will of course have the summer to up their online game, but again… Will the end result be of better quality than those much cheaper virtual colleges? It seems unlikely.

If enough students decide that traditional colleges aren’t worth it, Abrams is worried that many such institutions will actually collapse. Some on my side of the aisle might instinctively see that as a good thing, but I sure don’t. I learned a lot from my college experience, and it went well beyond just the courses and teachers. Independence, relationships, critical thinking, opportunities, numerous resources, etc… All contributed to important life lessons — the kind of which I know would be valuable to others. Abrams makes the same point in his piece.

Also, as a conservative, I believe in as many educational alternatives as possible. Having a lot of choices is a good thing.

But right now, we’re living in complicated times that call for tough decisions and unwanted compromises. At this point, in the arena of higher education, students and parents are the ones burdened with those decisions and compromises.

Unless the health situation changes drastically over the next few months, colleges will have to make unfathomable sacrifices too.