Categories: Science

When Universities Reopen, Will Students Return?

In response to the Covid-19 global pandemic, schools and universities around the world have shut their doors and told their students to go home. Most of them continued their educational mission, but through remote remote learning platforms rather than in-person lectures.

Some of these universities and schools maintained this status for only a few weeks, while some kept this as the default state for the rest of their spring semester.

And while most universities have been experimenting with remote learning platforms for years, and successfully transitioned some of their classes to an online experience, these were very limited in scope – both in the content offered and its availability to students.

Unless a class is specifically designed from the ground-up to be taught online to students scattered around the world, the transition isn’t easy. Almost all lectures are prepared assuming students are right there, able to spontaneously ask questions, fix mistakes, and create dialog. And that’s not to mention the hands-on experience that only an in-person education system can give, like laboratories and group assignments.

Leaving aside for the moment the impact on fundamental scientific research, the educational mission of many universities in the United States and abroad have been severely hampered by the novel coronavirus. And the question remains: will they recover?

Tuition expenses have been exploding for years. Propped up by easy access to low-interest student loans, universities have continually raised their rates, far surpassing the rate of inflation. But since the supply of faculty and instructors are always limited, most of that money has gone into infrastructure, like building better dorms, gyms, and student life experiences, to draw those students in along with their precious loan dollars.

To support all these students and the new infrastructure, university administration has also grown to unheard of proportions, with deans and associate deans and administrators stuffing the offices on campus.

But now students are sent home, their dorms closed and their classrooms locked. They’re still getting an education, but not as good as one as they would in person – and having to pay the same tuition rate as before. How many of these students will return next fall? How many will decide that college isn’t necessary for their career or ambitions? How many of them are looking at their rising student loan debt and wondering if it’s worth that much money?

There’s no question that the education market is in a bubble, with money flooding in for years. Could the novel coronavirus outbreak be the pin that pops the bubble? Will the education system in the United States be so rocked that it will be forever altered?

Of course it’s impossible to tell this early. We may not see the full impact on our education system for years to come. But it will be very interesting to see enrollment numbers this fall compared to last year. It could be that our country’s desire and demand for secondary education dwindles and fades away as we realign our priorities in the wake of the pandemic.

Paul M. Sutter

Astrophysicist, Author, Host | pmsutter.com

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