College after coronavirus #2: The social holding pen

Note: This is the second of three posts about threats to higher education exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The first part of this series, on “education versus credentials,” is linked here.

I was like most of my 18-year-old male peers in 1969 when I went off to attend an engineering school in northern Michigan. I wanted my own car. I wanted to get out of the house and find my own independence. And I wanted to stay out of the Vietnam-era draft; my class received the last year of automatic student deferments from military service before the lottery kicked in immediately for every male.

Car show attendance and the quantity of car wax products sold have been in a long decline as this generation of young males sees cars as more utilitarian rather than the social statement tied so closely to my generation’s self-image. Today’s 18-years-olds are also more likely to have their own bedrooms at home, complete with multiple forms of technology that did not exist for us. And this crop of new high school graduates is much less likely to be conscripted to die in a bad war.

These are but three examples that demonstrate how “going away to college” is a much different “rite of passage” than it was in 1969. I was back on that same campus last year, fifty years after first arriving, and while many of the buildings were the same, the campus had gone through a lot of changes. For instance, the formerly utilitarian “student union” building and bookstore was rehabbed into an attractive, modern shopping, dining and gathering destination.

During my years as a college instructor and administrator, almost every year brought a slight shift in the campus budget. Funds allocated to the “education side” always seemed to be frozen or even cut, while the “student life” and athletic facilities budgets got bigger as a percentage of the pie.

I do have to say that the student dormitory experience in 1969, with its “baby boom” crowded rooms, gang showers, questionable hygiene practices, and bad institutional food, was actually pretty horrible in retrospect. Many American universities have learned they could not attract new students with that level of “customer service” today.

But that also means that a significant part of the parents’ tuition payments, yes, outside of classic “room and board” and state funding, are really going to “lifestyle” aesthetics and non-academic campus facilities. Finding out exactly how much is very difficult, I have learned over the years. University administrators are very good at burying “campus life” expenses amidst direct academic costs so that this financial split is less apparent to the observer. This often results in a better social experience for the students. But it is critical to understand that you can’t blame all (or even most) of the incessant annual rise in tuition costs on professor salaries. Where I taught academic salary levels were, and still are, well below the market median.

So, what will change?

Here is my bet. A significant percentage of college-age students and their parents will be re-thinking this summer and autumn the benefits versus the risks and the hassles of “the new campus experience” post-coronavirus. But then, administrators are also furiously reworking their cashflow projections and making campus alterations even as this is written. The Chronicle of Higher Education has been tracking college and university plans for the fall. About 75% of reporting schools currently plan on some type of on-campus experience for students in the fall, but the mix of plans is all over the map. The California state university system is the largest hold-out so far, still planning for mostly-online instruction.

Even where on-campus instruction plans have been announced, all schools are scoping out significant adjustments. Large gatherings and classes will be discouraged on most campuses. The exciting social dynamic of the typical campus will certainly be disrupted. Campus sports will be very different this autumn and likely in the spring (a subsequent post). Off-campus entertainment districts will also likely be muted. I certainly hope so for the sake of the students and their families.

Summer jobs for students are already gone for the most part, and many parents are out of work. That $1200 stimulus payment won’t go far in today’s “tuition world.” How much will a lingering recession from the coronavirus change the college-age teen’s (and their parents’) perspective on the best way to spend $100,000 or more in college costs? The stock market will likely recover far faster than will the finances of most families with college-age children.

The institutions themselves will be struggling with their own financial shortfalls. On the student life side, newer and modernized dormitories have typically been financed with private debt rather than state aid for some time. This puts an urgency on receiving the required cashflows from room and board fees as schools go to their waitlists just to find bodies to put in their bunks. And if at the same time these schools need to expand social distancing “elbow room” in those dormitories and other student facilities, the cashflow formula on which the debt payback was scheduled will just no longer work.

If a campus is hit with a significant coronavirus outbreak this fall or winter, what will happen next? Will already-tight on-campus restrictions be tightened further? Will students be sent home again? Will the aging teaching force continue to show up for class? This is not a probability; viral outbreaks are an inevitability at multiple campuses throughout the U.S. Many schools are already planning to combine Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, getting students off the campus earlier than usual. But that may just mean bringing the virus it back into their parents’ homes.

The virus will not magically go away. This could be the start of a long-term social trend that does not favor traditional campus living. The big unanswered question for me is, “How many students will opt out of the campus experience this fall and beyond?” Even if this number is 10%, that is very bad news for most college budgets on top of the pain and added costs that they are already bearing. By 20% the campus budget starts to develop a disastrous hole.

And after 30%? As I have suggested earlier, the very financial viability of hundreds of college campuses is at stake within the coming year. I may be Cassandra here. But the bets are on the table, and the stronger campuses are hungrily eyeing the students at the weaker schools to fill their empty beds and classroom seats.

However, new opportunities are also on the table. At some point, some “name” university will likely “downsize” their focus and control over “student life” and intercollegiate athletics while retaining or re-invigorating academic excellence in new and innovative ways. That, in my view, would be a good thing. Schumpeter’s classic “creative destruction” has largely spared academia so far, even as it has ripped up retailing and media to install new business models. No online-only university, to my knowledge, has cracked the “reputation club” of the best residential schools. The coronavirus may well bring this change to the college campus. The change will be painful for many people and places that I care about, but I do believe that it will come soon.


The third part of this series, on the topic of college sports, is linked here. 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.

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