02 May Jonathan Cartu Declared: Maine Voices: Higher-education pundits are drawing the
Since the novel coronavirus began shuttering U.S. college campuses in early March, some thinkers have forecast the death of the traditional, face-to-face college experience. Opining in venues like The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the Chronicle of Higher Education, they argue that the traditional model of higher education was broken long before the pandemic, and that the recent move to online learning has driven home this reality. This realization, so the line of thinking follows, combined with the financial hardship created by the pandemic, has fueled doubts about the value of the traditional college experience. Therefore, when the dust settles, the colleges that thrive will be those that move most aggressively to abandon traditional learning in favor of remote instruction.
There is a grain of truth to these observations. Higher education has struggled to articulate its value proposition to students and families despite clear evidence of a positive return on investment. And many colleges are far too tradition-bound, lacking the agility required to adapt to a rapidly evolving world. Online programs catering to working adults have grown steadily in popularity over the past decade. And there’s no question that the pandemic has put tremendous financial pressure on families and colleges alike, which will finally force the closure of many institutions that were already on the brink of failure.
But there is mounting evidence that the pundits’ core conclusion – that traditional learning is on its deathbed – is simply wrong. As a university president during this unprecedented time, I have made a point to stay connected with our students as they study remotely from their homes. And these young people are telling me, passionately and unequivocally, that they desperately want to get back to campus as soon as possible. They tell me their experience over the past few weeks has made them realize more than ever just how much they value being on campus. While acknowledging the heroic efforts of faculty and staff to engage them online, they recount that virtual learning is no substitute for the intellectually invigorating and socially enriching campus experience.
These anecdotes are supported by data. There are two early indicators college administrators use at this time of year to gauge how likely existing students are to return in the fall: the number who pre-register for fall classes, and the number who make deposits for dormitories. At the University of New England, both of these metrics are actually up relative to last year. We are seeing no evidence of a mass exodus of students to cheaper, online venues. Rather, all indications are that they, with the support of their parents, are more eager than ever to resume their studies on campus. This preference for face-to-face classes was also found in a recent survey by the information technology nonprofit EDUCAUSE, and another by the college polling service College Reaction.
Fully online education is a godsend to working adults. Online courses can also fill gaps in traditional students’ plans of study. Hybrid teaching, in which online content supplements face-to-face instruction, is already widely used and will undoubtedly grow in popularity. But the pandemic has cast into stark relief the ways in which fully online learning is no substitute for the traditional campus-based experience for young adults. Traditional college allows for strategic integration of classroom experiences with the many co-curricular experiences that happen outside the classroom. In addition to reinforcing academic knowledge and skills, this integration helps students develop the communication skills, teamwork, and social skills that employers consider critical to career success.
This does not mean we can be complacent and expect students to simply show up and resume life as usual in the fall. For one thing, the financial hardships facing families are real and deep. Before asking them to make the sacrifices required to send their children back to college, we must be more vigilant than ever about controlling costs. The burden is also on colleges to provide hard evidence that families’ investments translate to measurable outcomes that matter. And until a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed, college life will inevitably look different, most likely requiring some forms of continued social distancing.
But those predicting a permanent shift in higher education should think twice before declaring the demise of the traditional college experience. First, they should talk to the students.