The Fate of Colleges and Universities Is Up in the Air as Classroom Walls Evaporate
The start of the school year this fall has certainly brought change aplenty, along with pandemic surges at certain schools where the traditional face-to-face, in-classroom teaching model has been tried with varying degrees of success. With most post-secondary and K-12 learning institutions now leaning toward virtual learning, or a mix of virtual and in-person attendance, education models, expectations, and methods are undergoing a major change in delivery mechanisms and learning styles.
The Aug. 8 edition of The Economist includes an outstanding briefing titled "Uncanny University: COVID-19 could push some universities over the brink." The story begins with a recitation of recent additions and upgrades to some major colleges and universities that are likely to be unused or underused because of the lack of bodies on the campuses where they reside.
It goes on to observe that many major institutions have built and planned their facilities, staff, and curricula to serve large numbers of foreign students, as well as local populations. But the pandemic means that students aren't traveling to attend those schools in person, so such investments in the future may now prove to have been misplaced.
Further, The Economist reports that such problems are "particularly severe" for colleges and universities in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Britain. Institutions in all of those countries rely heavily on foreign students to fill their coffers — particularly students from mainland China.
What Happens When Live Instruction Ceases?
The Economist puts the question this way: "How will universities survive with many fewer students in them?" All parties involved in education — students, parents, teachers, researchers, and so forth — agree that the best outcomes occur when in-person learning can proceed unhindered. Alas, that's just not possible right now.
And with remote learning, other interesting problems can rear their heads. My sister's oldest is attending a Virginia university right now, somewhere in limbo regarding completion of a four-year-degree-plus-internship program in physical therapy and rehabilitation. Last semester when the pandemic hit, the campus switched over to 100 percent virtual learning.
My niece found herself in a couple of classes where she needed additional input, guidance, and tutoring to really understand the course material. With no access to any of those things, she ended up doing poorly in those classes, and now needs to take them again as they're required elements of the academic track she's following.
She didn't sign up for virtual classes, however, nor did my sister intend to pay for those instead of classroom training (with access to live tutors in the campus tutoring center, professorial office hours, and a live learning lab for supplementary learning and practice). With no access to any of the resources normally available, my niece must now pay again to retake those classes, thereby extending her time to graduation by at least a semester.
Then there's the internship — a required element in this degree plan, it usually lasts 6-to-9 months, in the form of placement at a rehab clinic, sports medicine practice, or in the rehab department in an assisted living facility. Right now, however, all internships are on hold. And the University can't say when that hold will be released, except to tie it to "acceptably low (or no) COVID-19 infection rates."
This could extend her time to graduation from that program by one or more additional semesters, which means it could be another one or two years before she can finish her program and join the workforce. Before the pandemic hit, my niece and her family had expected her to graduate in June 2021. Now, it looks like the earliest this might happen would be June 2022.
All this, of course, is assuming that she can start her internship in January 2021 — for which there is no guarantee at present.
Different Alternatives Present
Last week I wrote about the 6-to-9 month IT boot camps popping up at certain colleges with focused workplace preparation content in the areas of cybersecurity, web development, data science, and cloud computing. That's certainly one way to go when considering an alternative to a more conventional undergraduate degree.
According to The Economist, Dan Tehan, the Australian Minister of Education, is offering "funding for short online courses in topics judged to be �national priorities' like teaching and engineering that will run for six months, with fees ranging from A$1,250 to A$2,500." They also cite Tyler Cowen, a George Mason University economist who runs his own online education website, who "predicts a big increase in online learning."
Of this — a big increase in online learning — there can be no doubt. But my previous example illustrates that the supporting elements to back up that learning experience — tutoring, counseling, learning labs, and more — also need to be available to make sure that those who start down that educational road can find their way to a successful conclusion.
No matter how you slice it, education organizations are should expect to scramble to keep teaching students and staying afloat. Costs are higher because of added infrastructure, equipment, and software needed to deliver and support quality remote learning.
The costs of in-person attendance will also be higher, as long as social distancing, daily antiseptic cleaning, and personal protective gear (masks, face shields, hand sanitizer, and so forth) are needed for those who do show up to participate in some kind of classroom experience.
The Economist predicts that some colleges and universities will fail because of these changed circumstances, and that all will struggle to maintain their staffs, student bodies and campuses. I couldn't agree more. It's going to be interesting, and probably a little disheartening, to see how it all unfolds. Stay tuned: This story is far from over, nor have all its wrinkles shown themselves just yet.