The Disease That Could Topple Traditional Higher Education

“Illness strikes men when they are exposed to change.” So wrote the 5th century B.C. Greek historian, Herodotus, widely regarded as the “Father of History.”

If change breeds illness, might it also be true that illness breeds change? This is the thesis of a recent report chronicling the challenges faced by American higher education due to the Covid-19 global pandemic. It comes from a national survey conducted by Art & Science Group, a Baltimore-based consulting firm. It finds that students are focusing keenly on the pandemic and its effects. Fully 90 percent of respondents said they seek out news about the pandemic at least daily.

And they are not merely monitoring passively the course of developments. One of the striking changes in students’ attitudes found by the survey is this: One in six college-bound respondents to the survey “appear to be near the point of giving up on the idea of attending a 4-year college or university as a fulltime student in the fall.” Add to this the fact that the survey found that “an additional two-thirds of graduating seniors” worry that the pandemic will compel them “to change their first-choice school” to one that is “likely to be less expensive, closer to home, and more familiar to them.”

Equally striking—and perhaps another sign of higher education’s future—the survey found that 44% of the students surveyed stated that they were “potentially more interested in taking an online course as part of their post-secondary educational experience.”

If these trends bear out—something none of us can know with certitude at this early time—the consequences for traditional higher education could be profound. A sizable contingent of students would now be intent on obtaining an education that is less expensive, more local, more convenient, and with increased online delivery.

To be sure, for years national surveys have attested the growing desire of students and their parents to get a college degree without burying themselves in an ocean of debt. Their concerns are well-founded. The average student debtor graduated with $28,650 in student loan debt in 2017. According to the website, Student Loan Debt Clock, today, student-loan debt stands at 1.7 trillion dollars, which surpasses total national credit card debt. As far back as 2011, the New York Times took to describing graduating students’ debt burden as “the new anti-dowry.”

The massive increase in student indebtedness is simply the response to the no-less-massive increase in average college tuitions over the past 30 years. According to one report, students at public four-year colleges and universities “paid an average of $3,190 in tuition for the 1987-1988 school year, with prices adjusted to reflect 2017 dollars. Thirty years later, that average has risen to $9,970 for the 2017-2018 school year” –a 213 percent increase.”

The damage done by tuition hyperinflation and its concomitant upward pressure on student loan debt has produced a contingent of virtual debt slaves: As of 2019, there were approximately 5.2 million federal student loan borrowers in default, “3.4 million federal student loans in deferment, and another 2.7 million in forbearance.” This translated in 2018 to 20 percent of student loan borrowers who were behind on their payments.

While online education offers students an alternative to traditional, brick-and-mortar higher education, one which is more convenient and is often less expensive, it has not to this point taken the hold it was initially thought that it would. It did not fit what some saw as the full “college experience.”

However, and long before the global pandemic hit, the “college experience” has proven not to be what it used to be; or, more precisely, it’s not what most of us tend to think it is. Today, the traditional college experience—18-to-21-year-olds pursuing fulltime study at a residential college for four years—is the exception rather than the rule. Now, 74 percent of postsecondary-education aspirants are “non-traditional,” meaning, they are over the age of 25 and/or working full time and/or supporting families of their own.

It is difficult for traditional colleges to answer the needs of this large body of students.

And now, with colleges forced to conclude their semesters online due to the pandemic, the survey tells us that as many as one out of every six high school seniors is beginning to entertain parallel doubts about the efficacy of traditional higher education models.

Still further destabilizing to the higher education status quo could be the changed behavior of those presently in college. The survey doesn’t measure the attitudes of those legions of college students currently completing their semesters wholly online due to Covid-19.

What I have in mind is this: After completing their semester online, how many students—or, more likely, how many of their parents—will look at each other when the fall semester college bill comes in the mail—tuition, fees, room and board, and books—and ask, “What are we doing this for? What of real substance are we acquiring by paying for the ‘on-campus experience?’ Is it really worth the cost?”

To be sure, different students and their parents will answer this question differently. But what if a contingent of students answers in the manner that one in six college-bound graduating high school seniors answers? In point of fact, were only 5 percent of current college students to go on and decide to complete their degrees online and/or at a geographically closer, less expensive institution, the world of higher education would be changed forever.

This is not to say that high school seniors will cease or even decrease their efforts to pursue postsecondary education and training. Far from it.

It is to say that these pursuits could become more targeted, more thought-through, and more sober. This sobriety of expectations could well be bolstered if the pandemic-spawned economic downturn persists or even if the economy recovers, but not fully and quickly.

In short, one effect of the global pandemic could be to jump-start a movement whose time had really already come.

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