Maybe you could go to college this fall, but should you?

May 1 is the traditional deadline for paying a deposit for the fall semester’s tuition. These are my thoughts for the students facing the decision about whether to enroll.

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PNCohen photo / Flickr CC / https://flic.kr/p/2iPmJDG

Higher education leaders are in a terrible situation as they plan for the fall. They’re bleeding cash from lost tuition, grants, and state support. With every school facing the prospect of collapsing budgets – and an unknown number on the brink of closing down – presidents, provosts, and deans are trying to make the most important decisions of their careers without the basic information they need even about the very near future. And they’re doing it from home in Zoom meetings with colleagues in their pajamas, apple sauce stuck to their laptop camera lenses, and kids screaming in the background.

Pulling off a 2020-2021 academic school year will take billions of emergency dollars, brilliant logistics, and heroic public health efforts. And most of the public is pulling for them. As Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University, wrote the other day, “The reopening of college and university campuses in the fall should be a national priority.”

They may still make it possible for students to at least start the school year this fall. Heck, at the University of Maryland, where I work, they may need to come back in the fall just to get their belongings, which have been locked up since the university abruptly canceled their move-out plans and closed up the dorms after spring break.

But for students, the question isn’t so much will campus be open, but should they go even if it is? Higher education’s famously high opinion of itself (which I sometimes share), is remarkably resilient to assaults from reality. President Paxson wrote, “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.” To which students might be wise to reply, “And?”

We need to be square with students on some hard questions. First and foremost, will you and your family get your money’s worth attending school this fall? Paxson says universities must maintain “the continuity of their core academic functions.” But a lot of what students get out of college results from social interaction – in labs, classrooms, gyms, stadiums, student groups, and – yes – parties. What is college worth without all that? If it’s reduced to recorded lectures and stilted online seminars, the value starts to fall towards that of a public library card (which is of course very high, but it’s also free). But the price is the same.

Practically speaking, students need to ask, if the contact tracing app beeps and I’m told to spend two weeks isolated in my dorm room because someone in my class is infected, will I get my tuition back? What if it happens more than once? What if classes move back online altogether? What is my protection if I’m kicked out of my dorm and stranded far from home?

And students also should consider their alternatives, which, contrary to the aspirational assertions of some higher education leaders, do exist. What if they stay home this fall?

They could attend a community college, which at a fraction of the cost might provide a smoother online instruction experience (and transfer the credits later).

They could take advantage of the voluminous, and expanding, array of free online lectures and instructional videos (I post the lectures for my students on YouTube, because why not?)

They could do vitally needed local (or remote) volunteer work, helping the members of their communities who are unemployed, homeless, hungry, at risk, or themselves struggling in school.

They could engage in the make-or-break effort to save democracy in the elections this fall, maybe at least slowing the country’s accelerating slide into oligarchy – and increasing the odds that we come out of this crisis moving in the right direction as we confront our health care crisis, climate change, and the rising tide of nationalism. With mandatory social distancing, campus political campaigns might not be where their efforts are best placed.

They might have a better chance of working a paid job to help support their families, including laid off parents and dependent relatives.

The people who make the most of this disastrous year will be disciplined and focused on their own wellbeing as well as the greater good, working in coordination with supportive community members and close social networks. In the best of times, a great college experience helps train people to do just that, and provides the social context in which those skills can blossom. But in the coming disarray, there may well be better, more cost effective, strategies for students.

You will have to be self-disciplined and highly motivated to make it work, but that will probably be the case more than ever at school as well in the coming year. Normally I would extol the virtues of learning together as one of the advantages of attending school, but the comparative advantage of the on-campus experience this year may be drastically reduced.

We all want a successful higher education system, and with luck we may end up with one. But let’s not put this on students, not this year. Saving higher education is not your job.

3 thoughts on “Maybe you could go to college this fall, but should you?

  1. They could also go to their local regional comprehensive college, which offers a four-year degree at a small fraction of the price. We regional comprehensives also don’t know if we will be online or in-person, but at least students can keep living at home and not have to fear again getting locked out of their dorms without their stuff. And our online classes will be smaller and feature faculty dedicated to teaching. The national discourse tells students they have a choice between expensive elite colleges (privates and state flagships) and community colleges, but regional comprehensives exist and provide an excellent option for the hundreds of thousands of students we educate every year, students who go on to make a difference in their communities and the world. And it’s worth noting right now that we educate the majority of BA and MA level health care workers in most communities.

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  2. A lot of economists think that the main economic value of a college education is not the actual education, but what they call signalling — telling employers, “I got into Brown and completed my degree there.” In fact, that may be worth the price of admission in the average case, in terms of expected future income, even if you didn’t learn anything at Brown.

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