NOTE: The following post is from our good colleague, Dr. David Rothman, an accomplished scholar and poet, who continues to produce works of wonder and humor under the inspiration of the Muse.
It would be hard to find anyone in education who is unaware of the tremendous structural problems facing the industry, especially private higher ed, in the wake of the pandemic. As of late May, The Chronicle of Higher Education “has identified 162 institutions associated with a layoff, a furlough, or a contract nonrenewal resulting from Covid-19. At least 44,368 employees in academe are known to have been affected by those actions.”. They are also tracking announcements of reopening for fall. Both data sets are sobering, and only likely to grow more so as August approaches. Major institutions such as the entire California State University system and England’s Cambridge University have already announced that all coursework this fall will be conducted online. Many more will no doubt follow, having an incalculable financial and educational impact.
Public flagship institutions, elite and well-endowed private schools, and community colleges will all take a hit, but probably be fine in the end, albeit transformed in ways we cannot yet see. All other institutions are at grave existential risk, especially if they are small, or isolated, or unendowed, or carrying capital debt or some combination of all of these challenges. For schools that move to online classes, tuition will be heavily impacted, while room and board, student fees, and ancillary income (from sporting events, for example) will go to zero.
Even if some students choose to enroll, many others will probably stay away, for reasons varying from their own families’ financial situation to lack of interest in an online-only program. Further, unlike restaurants and hotels, universities cannot simply reopen in a matter of days or weeks. Six months is probably the absolute minimum to spin back up, given the complexities of admissions, housing, registration, scheduling and so on.
All of this suggests a historical inflection point for higher education. It seems highly likely that many institutions will close, and all those that survive will be changed, even transformed. Surrounding communities and businesses—the classic American college towns—will be similarly affected.
There is going to be quite a bit of unavoidable suffering that accompanies the crisis we face. At the same time, those of us who care about curricular reform would do well to consider what may become possible as a result of the changes afoot. One doesn’t want to be overly optimistic, but perhaps now is the time to make the strongest possible case for curriculum and pedagogy that matter, that give young people the skills to work in our new economy; the ability to think critically; knowledge of what it means to live in a free, open and democratic society; appreciation of the past; courage to lead; love of learning;
joy in beauty (yes, as important as all the others); and understanding of what it means to serve.
That is a tall order, but opportunity knocks: if not now, when?