Home > Uncategorized > Three Articles Illustrate the Conundrum Colleges and Our Country Face: To Open or Not to Open and Who Decides

Three Articles Illustrate the Conundrum Colleges and Our Country Face: To Open or Not to Open and Who Decides

July 5, 2020

Should college campuses open this fall? It’s a question that our country is wrestling with and one that does not lend itself to an easy answer.

Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, concluded her NYTimes article titled College is Worth it but Campus Isn’t with this:

With no indication that the federal government is prepared to step in quickly with a financial rescue plan for higher education, colleges and universities are being forced to choose between bad alternatives.

But a toll will be paid, and it will largely not fall on students. Dining-hall workers, custodians, secretaries, librarians, medical personnel — as well as older faculty members — are far more vulnerable.

As an economist, I’m frequently asked, “Is college still worth it?” My answer is almost invariably yes: The lifetime payoff to earning a college degree is so very large, in health and wealth, that it dwarfs even high tuition costs. College is an especially smart choice during a terrible job market.

But in this pandemic, the college experience has to change. Gathering students on campus is a gamble that could generate outsize risks for society and only modest benefits for students.

But, argues UNH President Paul LeBlanc in a Forbes article on the value of college, it is campus life and live instruction that students value as much as the learning that goes on in the classroom. He suggests that college is a “coming of age experience” as much as an academic experience and that the closure of campuses might well lead to the creation of a different kind of coming of age experience. Mr. LeBlanc suggests this separation of academics from “coming of age” is already underway:

Might we see an unbundling of academics from coming of age in a way that creates new innovative delivery models and pricing structures? For example, anyone working on a campus knows that many students have had enough of the coming of age job after three years. We have seniors who withdraw from our traditional program and finish in our more affordable online program, eager to join the workforce and save on tuition. They are doing so because we did the “coming of age” job for them and now they only need to complete the academic job. By unbundling those two jobs, we can be far more creative in giving students options.

An overarching issue facing college presidents like Mr. LeBlanc and teachers like Ms. Dynarski is who gets to decide on the standards for opening colleges in this age of pandemic? A Washington Post article by Paul Kane describing how this question is plaguing the tourism industry is relevant to the question of school openings. Mr. Kane reports that:

America’s most influential power brokers in business increasingly feel that they are fighting more than just the deadly coronavirus to revive the economy.

These business interests see a short-term battle against two hard-to-influence forces: individuals acting irresponsibly and a Trump administration that is reluctant to lay down the type of guidelines that would mandate individual behavior during the pandemic.

The result of a lack of clear FEDERAL standards is creating a miss-mash of difficult to navigate state or, in some cases, regional or county standards that make it difficult for businesses to navigate— especially in the tourism industry:

The travel industry knows the high level of scrutiny it is under — most people still don’t fully trust hotels, resorts and airports to be safe enough for them to spend their ever-more-precious dollars for travel during a pandemic. But as they work to make safety improvements, these corporate entities worry those advances will be squandered because so many irresponsible people have continued to spread the virus and those who are trying to play by the rules do not know which rules to follow.

“People just really want consistency,” said Michelle Russo, chief communications officer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber spearheaded a letter to President Trump, Vice President Pence and the National Governors Association, writing in concert with other powerful trade groups such as the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers, pleading for a nationwide standard on when masks should be mandatory.

I’m certain colleges and universities, public schools and daycares, and businesses across the country would like to know what the rules in terms of masks as much as the Chamber of Commerce. And while many are disdainful of “the government” telling them what to do, the Chamber of Commerce recognizes that “…the economic comeback cannot really begin until enough consumers are satisfied that nearly all other consumers are playing by the same rules.”  And that level of consistency can only happen at the Federal level. The lack of leadership at the federal level is literally killing us.

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