Yet some students must return to campus to continue their education, for many reasons. Their families may not have a quiet or safe place where they can study, or there’s no reliable internet. And some classes, such as a nursing internship or a chemistry lab, simply can’t be taught online. Many colleges are putting a priority on finding space in housing and classrooms for these exceptions. But for the typical student, whose courses will largely be online, learning this fall does not require being on or near campus.
Given the enormous health risks involved in bringing students back, why are so many colleges promising to open their campuses? The answer is simple: Their financial survival depends on it. Many four-year colleges, especially the most selective schools, provide not just classroom learning but also the social experience of clubs, athletics, culture, politics and professional networking.
Without the promise of a campus experience, some students may opt to take a year off or enroll in a cheaper school. In addition, public colleges are facing sharp cuts from state governments coping with plunging tax receipts. If these colleges also lose revenue from tuition, fees, room and board, they will be forced to shutter programs and lay off large numbers of employees and faculty. At best, it would take decades for higher education to recover from such losses and disruption.
With no indication that the federal government is prepared to step in quickly with a financial rescue plan for higher education, colleges and universities are being forced to choose between bad alternatives.
But a toll will be paid, and it will largely not fall on students. Dining-hall workers, custodians, secretaries, librarians, medical personnel — as well as older faculty members — are far more vulnerable.
As an economist, I’m frequently asked, “Is college still worth it?” My answer is almost invariably yes: The lifetime payoff to earning a college degree is so very large, in health and wealth, that it dwarfs even high tuition costs. College is an especially smart choice during a terrible job market.
But in this pandemic, the college experience has to change. Gathering students on campus is a gamble that could generate outsize risks for society and only modest benefits for students.
Susan Dynarski is a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @dynarski