College after coronavirus #1: Three threats

I have long been watching three “weak spots” in the American college-level education “business model” that have been greatly exacerbated by the sudden coronavirus-caused emptying of campuses this spring. These three threats will, I believe, fatally doom several four-year colleges and universities within the next year and force major changes at almost all others.

The threats I focus on are (1) the “education versus credential” dilemma, (2) the changing view of the residential college as a social “rite of passage,” and (3) the uniquely-American tie of college success to sports programs. This first post focuses on that fragile relationship between learning and certification. The other two threats are addressed in upcoming posts.

Trinity COllege Library

Trinity College library, Dublin (photo by author)

“The primary product of the institution is a credential”

This was the insight given to me by my faculty mentor when I first started teaching 40 years ago this coming August. Granted, this guy was a marketing professor, but he was using that marketing definition of product to note, correctly, that it is the market and prestige value of the credential, from low to high, that more closely matches what students and parents will pay dollars for, either upfront or through loans. Community college credentials are cheap; A Harvard credential is expensive. The rest of the “market” is arrayed in a continuum in-between. The education part is certainly correlative, but as my friend would ask after seeing vacant seats in his class, “Why do students want so little education for their money?”

This sounds a tad cynical, I know, but most college instructors will attest to how difficult it is to get students just to read the assigned course material. The dirty secret is that, for almost all undergraduate, non-laboratory courses, there is a top-selling textbook that pretty much contains all the “education” necessary to reach the same level of knowledge as achieved by most students taking the class. Back in 2018 I wrote a series on the challenges facing higher education that I started by asserting that education itself is basically free to any reader, and it has been at for least as long as there have been public-access libraries. The credential, however, is anything but free.

Where is my campus?

Hundreds of thousands of students finished their spring semester in online classrooms, and this will continue to a large degree through the fall (at least). Online education has been a godsend to many education-seekers, but the drop-out rate has remained very high for online-only schools. My observation is that this failure rate persists primarily because these courses necessarily force onto the student much of the same self-discipline and text-centered absorption that simply reading the textbook does. This works out fine for the most motivated learners, but less-eager and reading-challenged students will often fail in this mode of instruction.

The reality is that, for most non-laboratory courses in the “core curriculum” of undergraduate education, an enterprising and disciplined student can absorb as much knowledge as at least the midpoint of any graduating class in the same or less time simply by the concentrated reading of nearly-free recent editions of top-selling textbooks and by interacting with available online resources. I spent a lot of years in the textbook market as well, and most of those (too expensive) books mirror closely the most common college course syllabi. In addition, they likely have several authors and many more reviewers, all recognized teaching-oriented professors from good schools.

And so, if you (or your parents) are paying a lot of tuition dollars just to watch your professor on your laptop screen at home, you might be thinking, “Is this method of learning really worth it?” If I am a student who thrives online, then I don’t need to pay for the high fixed costs of a campus. On the other hand, if I have trouble reading and motivating myself to follow a structured syllabus without going to a physical class, then I am likely finding that online education fails to meet my needs.

Professors add to the education equation mostly by acting, in several ways, as “credential certifiers” for their institutions. They help students better grasp the course material as either a “sage on the stage” or a “guide on the side.” They administer tests and award grades. And if they are research professors, they add to the “cachet” of that university’s credential through reputation and publications. In short, the professors are the gate (whether an easy one or a difficult one) through which all students must pass in order to obtain that college credential. In the better schools, that credentialing process hopefully infuses the student with an education that reflects the value of that piece of paper. Sometimes it does not.

Oz scarecrow with diploma

Oz’s Scarecrow gets his credential.

I am not dissing online education here. Anyone who has taught online (as I have in the past) knows that online education is often a harder gig than just walking into a classroom three times a week and reading from last year’s notes. All of my teaching material needs to be in publishable form online or in good-quality video format. Students are often seeking/demanding assistance at 2:00 in the morning or on weekends. And I will have a near-impossible time getting to know the individual needs of each student, so that I can best enable each person’s education.

Finally, securely testing these online students, a function demanded of professors by their institutions and accrediting agencies to protect their credential’s value, is a process that remains full of security holes. Professors have been forever trying to protect their exams from cheaters, but the internet provides new challenges, and it will likely have advice for you even on how to beat any of the most secure forms of online testing.

So far, even the best online-only colleges and universities have been unable to “crack the market” of the “prestige degree” schools. But now they are on a more level playing field. How will the “traditional” schools differentiate their online education credentials in “Coronavirus World”?

What will happen this fall?

The first thing that will happen is that many students will simply not return to campus this fall. Exactly how many is the key bet. Especially if the social environment is disrupted and normal sports are not happening (as will be discussed in subsequent posts) the college campus looks much less attractive right now to incoming freshman and even many upperclassmen. Many colleges and universities are financially dependent on this annual wave of new bodies that can be routed into large lecture “core curriculum” classes, even knowing that a large percentage of them will not return as sophomores.

There are signs that the parents writing the tuition checks are starting to rebel, even to the point of suing major institutions that promised an on-campus experience and substituted an online one at a cost of up to $30,000 per semester.

For many small private colleges without large endowments, there simply may not be the cashflow required to open the institution in the fall, let alone rebate part of last year’s tuition or housing costs. While it may be wishful thinking, small colleges are selling their smaller class sizes as being much more adaptable to the post-coronavirus social environment. But those schools as well depend on some large-section freshmen classes to stretch their instructor dollars.

Some major state institutions have been “furloughing” faculty and staff in large numbers this spring. The financial support from states going to these schools has been waning for quite some time, and the coronavirus pandemic has stressed many state budgets to the breaking point even without trying to save their colleges and universities.

Smaller private colleges and universities are in even worse shape. While students may get some state aid that goes to these institutions, this is not their primary funding source. The Trump administration had already been making it more difficult to bring in the international students often key to their ongoing financial health, and endowments (usually modest) took a major stock market hit this year.

The Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, for instance, has 25 members, many of them the largest employers in their communities for a century or more. Except for a couple of these schools with exceptional endowments, it is safe to say that the administrators, staff and faculty know they are facing an existential crisis. I am retired from an Iowa private university and I still get the sweats regularly because of the inevitable impacts on people and places that are important to me.

Multiply Iowa’s experience across the fifty U.S. states and we will be seeing once-in-a-lifetime changes this autumn in how and where college-level credentials are “sold” to the public. And perhaps some new “credentialing models” will emerge from this mess.

The second part of this series, on the collegiate “social holding pen” has been posted. To subscribe to this blog, enter your email address in the box on the left of the screen (or at the bottom on phones). Alternatively, click on the Facebook or Twitter icons to be notified of new posts.

3 thoughts on “College after coronavirus #1: Three threats

  1. Bruce Lindgren

    This morning on MSNBC, a higher education commentator suggested what may happen in the fall: Top-tier schools will need to dip into their waitlists, students who would otherwise go to second-tier schools. Second-tier schools will dip into their waitlists, students who would otherwise go to third-tier schools. Third-tier schools have no waitlists. Interesting thought.

  2. Pingback: When innumeracy kills – When God Plays Dice

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