Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Coming Great Disruption In Higher Education

During the past decade, most universities and colleges, large and small, have set forth vision statements for the future along with timetables for achieving their goals.

Here, for example, are the guiding principles of Stanford’s long-range vision

*  Renew our commitment to Stanford’s founding purpose to promote public welfare by exercising influence on behalf of humanity 

*  Anchor our efforts in integrity, ethics, inclusion, and human welfare 

*  Advance our mission as a research university to serve as a place of enlightenment and freedom of thought and expression

(details:  https://ourvision.stanford.edu/)

Most vision statements includes the following objectives:

Increase minority student enrollment
Increase first generation student enrollment
Increase low-income student enrollment
Increase student financial aid
Construct new campus facilities
Increase endowment and annual giving
Increase faculty/staff diversity, equity, and inclusion
Increase research activities
Increase international programs
External engagement to help local, state, national, and foreign governments solve problems
Revamp core curriculum to address social injustice
Increase residential education
Reduce sexual violence on campus
Increase mental wellness

Enter The Coronavirus

The Wuhan Coronavirus has disrupted these carefully prepared visions and timetables.  Some schools, with more to follow, have assembled task forces to deal with the impact of the coronavirus,  These task forces will have to consider cuts in current academic programs to offset reductions in endowment income, gifts, and state appropriations.  Without an effective vaccine for a year or more, and to prepare for the possibility of another disruption, universities will have to consider changes in current operations.

Fearing a second wave of the coronavirus in autumn, which a number of prominent epidemiologists has predicted, some universities and colleges that are scheduled to begin instruction in mid-August might choose to remain closed to undergraduates.  Most dorms are rows of rooms with common bathroom facilities and communal sitting areas.  A single student could potentially infect dozens.  The liability of students infections and deaths may be too high to risk reopening dorms, not to mention the moral opprobrium that would fall on university administrators.  Moreover, many parents may be reluctant to trust college administrators with their children’s safety.

Mental health illness, already a large problem on campuses, would intensify as students spend every waking minute worrying about catching the coronavirus from fellow students, staff, and faculty.

It is questionable whether fall 2020 sports will resume with football stadiums seating 50,000-100,000 spectators.  Several infected fans would create panic among students and other spectators.  Athletes would need to be tested daily given contact on the field and close proximity in locker rooms.

Social distancing will continue after the corona virus has abated.  It will become ingrained in our  behavior to minimize the transmission of colds, flu, and other infectious diseases.   Social distance will curtail social life, to wit, the college experience.  Absent social life, more students may choose to enroll in lower-cost, online degree programs already in place at many universities.  

All foreign study and research programs will likely remain suspended, lest students get infected and stranded abroad.

Many universities and colleges boast that their incoming first-year class includes students from 40-50 states and dozens of countries.  Each of those students will have to be carefully examined for the presence of the coronavirus.  If a second wave breaks out and students are again forced to evacuate campus housing, some may find it difficult to return to their own countries if inbound flights are terminated.  These students then become the responsibility of the university.

In the 2018-19 academic year, about 370,000 students from China were enrolled in American colleges and universities.  Many pay full tuition, room and board, and help support local economies, amounting to about $12 billion a year.  If flights from China remains banned, or severely restricted, many Chinese students will be unable to enroll, or return to their studies, in American universities.  Many Chinese parents who foot the bill may not want their children to attend school in America for fear of catching the virus in a second wave.  Ditto for students from India, the second largest source of international students, Italy, Spain, and other countries.

Now that universities have experienced a quarter or semester of online instruction, the hard work of learning the technology is largely complete.  Except for laboratory classes and research, it will be much easier to put the entire curriculum online for the fall semester or quarter.

How will the high school and college experience with online education change the landscape of higher education?

Without the college experience, students do not need thousands of universities, colleges, and community colleges to learn a subject and earn a degree, or even complete a degree course.  Why pay Yale or Stanford for distance learning from their limited faculties when online courses from a multitude of sources are available at lower cost.  Nor do students necessarily have to spend four years on a high-cost campus to earn a degree.

Entrepreneurs have already created certificate or degree programs from a pool of faculty that  can offer online courses and recruit thousands of other active and retired academics to serve as tutors and grade papers and exams.  Physically-defined universities will slowly give way to cloud-based universities.  Current organizations include edx, Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, and the Khan Academy.  Arizona State University offers 200 degree programs online. Other universities are doing the same.  Firms will post job descriptions for various careers and cloud-based firms and schools will supply and certify the necessary education. 

This reorganization of higher education may be slow to start, but technological innovation has the potential to overwhelm traditional education in short order, as it has done to many industries and professions, especially if revenues substantially decline in the 2020-21 academic year and beyond.

Many schools have paused new staff hiring and faculty searches.  The 2000 dot.com crash and the 2008-09 financial crash led to large-scale buyouts of faculty and staff.  This time the financial impact could be greater and last longer.

Appeals to trustees and donors will not make up lost revenue. Most wealthy persons and philanthropists serve as trustees of several non-profit institutions and donate to others.  Every non-profit will ask donors for more money to make up lost revenue, even as donors’ wealth declines.  Too, donors are likely to shift a higher percentage of their giving to biology departments, biotech programs, nursing departments, and medical schools.  Less money will go to general university funding, such as humanities and liberal arts.

Cost-cutting to rebase budgets to a lower sustainable level will be the order of the day.  Ramping up online teaching activity may be the only source of new revenue, similar to the way ebooks first complemented, and then steadily supplanted, print books.  Faculty and staff salaries consume the lion’s share of university expenditures.  Even tenured faculty will be pushed or bought out as took place in the 2000 dot.com crash and the 2008-09 financial crisis.  Ph.D. programs cranking out new faculty will be cut back for lack of money and diminished opportunity for graduates to get academic appointments.  Even schools with multi-billion dollar endowments will face hard choices.

Universities have added large number of non-teaching staff in recent years to foster diversity, equity, inclusion, mental health wellness, reduce sexual violence, support transgender persons, and so on.  Many of these academic jobs will disappear in a world of remote education.  Students will shop for courses and skills, not ethnic empowerment and social justice certificates.

Is this future inevitable?  Not necessarily.  Perhaps the virus will fully or almost fully abate sometime in mid-summer, with good treatments available to cure those who are sickened by it.  Under these conditions, universities may gamble on reopening in the fall.

If a second wave occurs this fall, or if the virus does not adequately respond to treatment, reopening and then closing mid-term a second time would be catastrophic.  Covid-19 should teach us that nothing is certain except death (and taxes).  Perhaps a vaccine can reestablish the old normal by fall 2021.  Perhaps not.  Perhaps it will be too late as remote education rapidly expands.  To quote Mao Zedong, “A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire.”


Widespread cancellations of events illustrate the response to the coronavirus.

The 2020 Japan Olympics has been rescheduled to July 2021.

On March 31, 2020, Wimbledon canceled its tennis tournament for 2020.  It will not resume until 2021.

On March 31, 2020,, Scotland announced the cancellation of the August Edinburgh International and Fringe Festivals for the first time in 70 years.  The Military Tattoo, the Edinburgh Art and International Book Festivals were also cancelled.  These festivals, attended by 4.4 million people, attract 25,000 artists, writers, and performers from 70 countries who take part in 5,000 events.

On April 1, 2020, the United Nations Climate Change Summit was postponed until 2021.

On April 1, 2020, Justin Bieber canceled all tour dates for 2020.

On March 17, 2020, the Rolling Stones postponed its tour.

On April 1, 2020, the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival scheduled for June 24-August 30 was canceled for the first time in 88 years.

On March 26, 2020, the New York City Governors Ball was canceled.

On March 17, 2020, Glastonbury scheduled for June 4-8 was canceled.

Hundreds of postponements and cancellations have been announced for other Launches, Premiers, Screenings, Films, TV shoots, Theater Productions, and Sporting Events.

The first college or university that announces it will remain closed to on-campus learning and stick with remote learning will probably set off a tidal wave of closures around the country.  Similarly, if any school that reopens experiences a second wave of the coronavirus, it and other schools will quickly implement closures.  No school wants to be first to set off the avalanche, but time is fast running out.  We should have an indication before the end of May.