A bunch of black swans showed up this spring, and they landed on top of every college administration building in America.
Last March, virtually every postsecondary institution shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Students who lived in campus dorms were told to scram. Face-to-face instruction screeched to a halt, and the colleges began teaching their students online. The departing students lost access to professors, libraries, and college recreational facilities.
Most universities refunded dorm fees and student meal plans on a proportional basis. But the universities didn’t refund tuition, arguing that students are still getting fair value because their classes are continuing online.
The students aren’t buying it. So far, students have sued more than 50 colleges demanding to get their tuition money back. Online instruction is inferior to interacting with professors in a real classroom, they maintain. And of course, they are right.
The colleges respond, with some justification, that they did not anticipate the coronavirus pandemic and are doing the best they can under the circumstances. “Faculty and staff are literally working around the clock,” Peter McDonough, a lawyer for a college trade group, argued defensively.
I sympathize with the colleges, but I can say with authority that professors don’t work around the clock on anything. If they claim to be working 24/7, they mean they’re working 24 hours in a seven-day week.
And if the universities claim their distance-learning format is equal to face-to-face teaching, they are not telling the truth. A few professors are tech-savvy and can quickly shift to online education, but a lot of them can’t.
In any event, America’s elite private schools have justified their nosebleed tuition by professing to offer small class sizes and ample opportunities to personally interact with their professors. They can’t credibly change their story now and claim that their online instruction justifies tuition at $50,000 a year.
Regardless of whether colleges win these lawsuits, they will be severely stressed financially in the coming months. One study predicts that four-year colleges could lose up to 20 percent of their fall enrollment. Any small private school that loses 20 percent of its students this fall will be closed by May.
If you are a professor who works at a small private college, it is time to formulate a Plan B. What will you do if your school shuts down and you are thrown out of work?
And if you are a student who plans to enroll at a small, private school this fall, you too need a Plan B. You need to find out what your institution’s financial situation is. You do not want to take out student loans to pay tuition to attend a college that may close before you graduate.
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