American colleges doomed by coronavirus

Coronavirus is going to break the traditional college model in America

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Today is August 1 and in a few short weeks, nearly every college in South Carolina where I live is going to open up for in-person classes this fall and open its dorms. Meanwhile, SC’s death rates are rising ever higher in the lagging metrics of coronavirus exposure that took place over the July 4th weekend.  It’s sensible to expect that we’ll see another spike in September as a result of back-to-school in K12 and higher ed.  My doctoral classes are slated to begin in-person the week of August 17 at the University Center of Greenville, a city with one of South Carolina’s worst outbreaks.

Many things I could say here about the overall brokenness of a market system and a political structure which cannot see any other solution except asking people who are predominantly poor and/or non-White and essential workers to sacrifice their health so others can enjoy working from home and Instacart deliveries.  But I’ll save that for another day.

Truth is, coronavirus and the pandemic are ripping off some masks — if Americans will look and see, rather than ignoring and pretending — that have hidden the deep gaps in our systems.  I should probably write a similar article about K12. But let’s focus first on higher education, a world I’ve worked in since 2012 (and also 1998-2002).

I’ve worked at three separate institutions and attended two others. I’m not pretending my analysis is brilliant, new, or applicable to all colleges. But we’ve got to start saying these things out loud so we can build something new and better once it all falls in.

Note: Most of what follows is me sharing personal thoughts, and I’m supposed to be writing a dissertation chapter, so I’m not going to plug in a lot of links to external articles and data. Feel free to comment with anything you want to add or dispute.

Why the push to reopen?  A word about higher ed finances

Where do colleges get their money?  *By “college,” I generally mean 4-year undergraduate institutions which might also have a graduate school. What I say is less applicable to well-funded state systems (those are rare) and I don’t know a lot about community colleges or 2-year schools. 

First, it’s not from tuition.  Tuition dollars represent a mere fraction of the typical American college budget.  The sticker price of the average private non-profit college in SC is tuition plus room and board plus fees, and the sticker price isn’t the final thing you pay.

Buying a college education is like buying a car from the most obtuse car lot you can imagine, where every customer is quoted a different price once they get into the deal room to work out the finances. “Yeah, sure, that model is labeled $45000, but for you, it’s only $15,000 and South Carolina will kick in $7500 for the LIFE / science scholarship, so you’re probably down to $7500!  Would you like information on federal student loans?”

But here’s the thing:  Colleges absolutely depend on room and board money along with campus fees to make ends meet. 

Unless students return to campus this fall, two things happen:
1) Without students on campus, most colleges CANNOT cover payroll and expenses for the year.
2) Without students on campus, the entire higher-ed industry “image” collapses.  Why would you pay for online education when you can attend a place like WGU and pay no more than $8,000 for the entire YEAR and pass as many courses as you can in that time?

The aura of the “on-campus experience”

American colleges and coronavirus
Photo by Vasily Koloda via Unsplash

Look, I’m an educator. I value higher education because getting out of your home town and experiencing new ideas and new people helps overcome the prejudice, ignorance, racism, and bias inherent in a life lived within 5 square miles.

Even with TV and media like we have now, most of us live inside a thought-tunnel where we don’t really hear many outside ideas. So getting young adults all on campus together to live and learn is a good idea, right?


For one thing, I’ve already talked about how much I hate the freshman dorm experience here in America, and I stand by my critique that ripping kids out of one context to live with a bunch of other dislocated young adults is probably the worst idea ever.

For another, the European universities do a good job of breaking down provincial barriers but without the residential emphasis. You might get an apartment in town, but you might just as easily live at home. Either way, you’re in class with other folks, and Europe is relatively cosmopolitan already.

Steven McBride in an article for Forbes noted that pre-covid 19, he said “It’s a tough sell to convince an 18-year-old kid not to attend the four-year party all his friends are going to, especially when the US government is financing it through student loans.”

McBride’s analysis of the financial impact of Covid-19 on the American college model is the same as mine: once you strip away the flashy dorm-apartments, the weekly free parties out on the quad, and the tingly feels of walking across a tree-lined campus living your own life away from mom and dad…. the inadequate pedagogy of traditional-style courses starts to undermine the college model as we know it.

Without the income stream of on-campus room, board, and fees, most of the colleges in America will be bankrupt unless they also already have a well-developed graduate school or online programs to drive income.

The realities of small and medium college funding

It’s easy to assume that colleges generally sit pretty on funding. They hire professors who work in small offices in historic brick buildings covered in ivy. Administrators oversee everything from their perch in the admin building, and a platoon of student support staff, health personnel, residence hall directors, and coaches make sure the fun times roll without anyone getting hurt.

That’s not it at all.

Admissions is the first sign of the apocalypse — colleges fight for a shrinking pool of students (as I explained above) and often have a hard time luring in out-of-state students to pay full-price tuition.

International students provided an increasing pool of dependable revenue, as the shine of an American education still drew thousands of relatively rich kids out of their home countries to study here, sometimes on a sports scholarship. But the Trump administration has done everything it can to destroy this market, so far as essentially banning international students from attending this fall and ending the visa program which allowed post-doc international scholars to keep studying and working in their labs at research universities.  Many of those best and brightest are now on their way to Canada (so I’ve read), and the loss of revenue will hit colleges hard.

I’m familiar with several of the small and medium-sized colleges in South Carolina, and I’m fairly confident in saying they would fold if they weren’t offering athletic scholarships to get high school students from nearby states to play sports and pay a bit of tuition too.  Very few students get “full-ride scholarships”; they are getting $5,000 or $10,000 a year which reduces what their parents have to pay for them to attend, and in return, the student gets to play ball for a few more years and pretend they might have a shot at a pro career.  Look, I’m not here to attack sports in America — though football and jump right off a cliff given the brain damage it does — but this is a messed-up system if overall college support is so poor that a large percentage — sometimes half or more — of students wouldn’t be there if they weren’t able to play on a team. Those colleges are on very scary financial footing.

What about endowments? Well, here’s how it works.  That pile of money sits in investment accounts, so it’s susceptible to market drops like the one we’re having right now which can wipe out 10-25% of the endowment.  Next, most institutions refuse to access endowment funding. For poor colleges, they need to protect the principal so they can live off 5-10% market returns each year to provide scholarships and keep the lights on.

Large institutions and those with gigantic war chests — the Stanfords and Princetons and Harvards and MIT’s of the world — are even worse IMHO because they *could* give everyone a free ride, but they’d rather sit on the money.   Malcolm Gladwell has an excellent podcast episode on this topic.

Employees and Regulations are expensive

Have you talked to a business owner or HR person lately? Healthcare costs are staggering.  When I entered the job market in the late 90s, this trend had begun, and the organization I worked for moved away from self-funded healthcare as their costs quadrupled in just a few years.  In the early 2000s, for about a decade, I worked for a K12 school which offered only a high-deductible “catastrophic health” plan because the costs of anything else were just absolutely beyond the budget.  Those costs soared between 2000 and 2010 when Congress passed the ACA.

The typical formula has always been that employees cost another 25-50% of their salary to the employer to pay benefits, provide retirement accounts, offer basic employee services, etc.  So even if you underpay PhDs to teach at like $40K a year, they’re costing the college $50-60K.

Now, start looking at the costs of ancillary staff:

Title IX is one of the imperfect and messy regulations that govern how colleges handle accusations of rape or sexual harassment on campus for students and staff. Campuses must have a Title IX coordinator who is typically a busy and overworked employee.  Multiply this times hundreds of regulations and requirements for on-campus living (and employee management), and suddenly the administrative bloat of a college organization makes it WAY LARGER than what I saw when I went to college.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

The rise of adjunct labor

I put these here just so no one is unaware.  Estimates currently suggest 75% of students are being taught by adjunct labor — contract workers who aren’t part of the institution’s culture, always underpaid, contingent, and vulnerable. At large state systems, adjuncts may be less common because research institutions rely on very underpaid graduate student labor to serve as TA’s and GA’s.

We’ve perpetuated a system where teaching is the least important job for these folks, so let’s give them all the freshman courses.  Awesome.  What a great education!

To stay alive, colleges have eaten their labor force, and tenured faculty pretty much just stood by and shrugged while it happened because “their jobs were safe.”

Until now.

Market pressures are mounting on colleges across America

Four-year colleges are facing an apocalypse from multiple directions.

Consider the massive changes under way, even before coronavirus rode in on the pale horse of 2020:

  • sending everyone to college (see below) devalues a college diploma. Politicians act like having the diploma is an automatic pay raise. It’s true that college grads earn much more over a lifetime than many of their less-educated counterparts, but that assumption does not seem to be carrying over for Millennials and Gen-Z outside of certain fields
  • college costs have far outstripped what typical families can pay
  • demographic changes are reducing the number of graduating high school seniors — as America’s birth rate drops, so does the pool of future 18-24 year olds who have typically been easy picking for college admissions personnel
  • adult populations who need to return to college cannot work within the rigid schedules of traditional higher ed, leading to….
  • a rapid rise of online-only colleges like Western Governors University and Southern New Hamphire, which provide employment-focused bachelors and masters degrees from a regionally accredited institution at a fraction of the cost of “brick and mortar” colleges, partly because they don’t have to maintain a campus and their employees can serve many more students due to the modular, online delivery of content
  • “big fish” — like the major players in a market, the state flagships and the top private colleges — always eat first.  Every other college is merely fighting for the scraps.

Put simply, any college which isn’t 1) part of a large state-funded system or 2) in the absolute top-tier of regional or national liberal arts colleges and 3) sitting on a massive endowment is very likely to go bankrupt.  A few years ago I would have said “by 2040 or 2050,” but I think coronavirus closures will kill a lot of medium and small colleges within the next 5 years. Those institutions were already hanging by a thread; now they are starving for students.

Pedagogy is part of the problem

I’m currently working on my doctorate and my research involves the changes being forced on colleges to adapt their pedagogy to a new type of learner.  (I blog research notes here as I have time.)

For decades — no, centuries — colleges were able to reliably educate a single type of learner:  a young, white man from a middle-class or better family with aspirations of a career in politics, medicine, academics, business, law, etc. This class of student persisted up through the 1960s in most American institutions, especially in the South.  Women broke into colleges a little earlier, but their inclusion in male-dominated fields lagged behind for decades (and still hasn’t caught up in all STEM fields).

As the learner pool as diversified, colleges have not necessarily updated teaching methods to acknowledge other ways of knowing, other folkways, informal education practices, and culturally relevant pedagogies.

This links into the changes happening in K12 education accelerated by No Child Left Behind under W and Race To The Top under Obama. Both of those programs tied federal education funding to a carrot/stick strategy to get schools to adopt strict standards and test kids to death. Pearson Inc has reaped billions of dollars out of the American education system by writing Common Core textbooks aligned to the Common Core tests that many states give students each year, and use to determine which schools are “failing” by these measures (often stripping those schools of autonomy in the name of “turning them around”) — again, this is a discussion beyond the scope of this post.

But here’s the connection — as K12 has become test-driven and regimented, in addition to driving excellent teachers out of the classroom by removing their autonomy, resources, and time to teach using active learning and deep-learning techniques — a type of education which is very hard to test — recent graduates of high school are emerging from a system that has micromanaged every single second of their thought-time.

These K12 graduates are not prepared to learn in a traditional college environment where lectures still rule the roost, and where students are expected to sort out their own learning methods and needs, and fill the gaps largely by themselves. It’s a separate discussion as to whether traditional college methods are good or effective; regardless, colleges are not typically scaffolding the wide variety of learners who are showing up to take courses.

Using college to fix social and wealth inequality is a failed strategy

American colleges doomed by coronavirus
Photo by Cole Keister via Unsplash at

Not only has the learner pool gotten more diverse, we’re sending way more kids to college.  It’s been a decade since I’ve read the research deeply, but the Gates Foundation published a report around 2009, 2010 which showed that despite sending about ⅔ of American high school grads to college, institutions are graduating maybe 40-50% of those students.  (Up to 60% at private non-profit liberal arts colleges.)

So — if 100 kids graduate from high school —

  • in 1900 we sent a very few to college and they were all men (and women sometimes went to separate schools to become teachers)
  • by 1950 we added a few women, but maybe 20-30 of those graduates went to college
  • by 1970 adding BIPOC students and more women entered that group
  • by 1990s we began arguing that education = wealth so the way to “fix” poverty in the US was to send everyone to college
  • thus by about 2010, 60-70 of those 100 kids would be sent on to college, but only 30-40 would graduate.

Also notable — by 2010, nearly all of those 60-70 kids headed off to college were accepting student loans from the federal government or by private lenders if the feds denied them as a credit risk.

If half of those students drop out without finishing, what happens to all that debt?  They keep it — but they get no gains that might derive from a college diploma.  And the 2008 recession wiped out most monetary advantages for holding a college degree anyway, except in certain fields.

What’s going on?  We’ve collectively done a piss-poor job funding workforce training, community colleges, trade schools, and other post-high school training for 21st century jobs while at the same time propping up undergraduate programs via federal student loan funding programs (which serve their place) to churn out bachelors graduates who can’t step straight into a career after graduation.

Enter Coronavirus, riding a Pale Horse

Here’s my point — and if you’ve stuck with me this far, you’re a saint.

Colleges are fucked.  Pardon my French, but we need to stop talking around the problem and label it for what it is.

Coronavirus = a crisis for leadership

A friend of mine commented on his disappointment in his institutional leadership. He teaches at a medium-sized private college, where the response to coronavirus has been to offer very little information but forge ahead toward in-person classes this fall.

It’s easy to critique leaders — and I think the push to reopen campuses is (at best) foolish, if not immoral given how little we know about the virus. Everything we’ve seen about long-term effects is just terrifying.

But think it through:

Let’s say a college decides to close the campus for in-person teaching, and everything shifts online.  What does that mean? 

For students, it means they aren’t getting anything like what they paid for. I’m not saying online education can’t be effective; it can. But online education will NEVER be the high-touch, high-cost, time-intensive, personal “style” of liberal arts coursework that we usually think of and which movies always show as the college experience.   Online courses can deliver information just fine, and some of them can facilitate discussion and dialogue. But at best, they usually provide individualized learning experiences that are very much “read this, watch that, write a thing.”  Online courses struggle to deliver the rich, complex, collegial experiences of a learning community led by a scholar. 

So who’s going to pay full price for half the experience?

For college leadership, the resulting drop in funding as they 1) don’t get room and board money and 2) lose students from their rosters means their budget tanks.

Now, who would you furlough from your college’s payroll?  

Would you reduce teaching staff because — let’s be honest — one online course framework for “Intro to Calculus” is enough. Hire one professor to do the main lectures and several underpaid TAs to field questions on the message boards and grade the papers.

Would you furlough the entire student life staff? Do they just….starve for the year? Move away? How do you staff campus next year?

How do you move the college to live on a tuition-only model, without a residential campus?

Would you axe the sports teams and take the resulting drop in 30-50% of students?

How are you going to provide ancillary academic services like writing support, tutoring, ADA compliance, and library services?

Minimum viable product

What is the sine qua non of the American college experience?  Is it big brick buildings, sitting in a group on the quad, having coffee with a PhD?  Is it learning information?  Is it experiencing new things? Is “the college experience” just proxy for “moving out of my parents’ house and learning some life lessons”?  Is it irresponsibility fed by not having to work a job so you can drink all weekend?

It doesn’t really matter how you answer that question, because a brick-and-mortar campus has to provide a minimum level of services just to exist, and those services can’t shrink smaller than a certain point.

I worked for a tiny liberal arts college — and in some ways, it was too tiny. I remember the academic dean commenting that really, a college needs about 1,000 students just to be viable, just to keep the lights on in all the offices they’re required to have.  If you have 50 students, you still need a gym, a janitorial staff, people to stock the snack machines (or an expensive contract), a business office, a registrar, student information software, an IT department, a website, an admissions staff, a development / advancement / alumni staff, a PR and communications person, someone to organize the schedule for facilities usage and rentals, coaches, science labs, a library…..

Online universities can bypass more than half of the items on that list and outsource several more or use software to enable self-scheduling or information management.  They can build a course one time and deliver it to all 7 billion people on planet earth without incurrent additional costs.

Photo of one of the colleges at Oxford University by Delfi de la Rua, via Unsplash


OK, fine. So now what?

Fair question.

Pie in the Sky Plan

  • America elects a better government top to bottom and decides that collective success is better than inequality-driven individual success like we have now.
  • Massive restructuring of budget priorities and income streams on the federal, state, and local levels emphasize local autonomy for K12 education while prioritizing state and federal funding for college education.
  • Small, regional institutions – both public and private – provide targeted education for the trades, for workers in all stages of their careers, and for life-long learners.  Similar to the Stanford 2025 project, universities and colleges aren’t as cyclically dependent on high school graduates for enrollment, and tertiary education (ie: post high school) becomes something that adults do in bursts rather than a 4-year slog.
  • Microcredentials, badges, and competency-based assessments become more common.
  • In-person education will always be high-touch and expensive. Even in this model, the Stanfords and Harvards of the world won’t likely change much. But they will open their resources to more colleges.  It might become more common to take an online course based anywhere in America and import that credit into a local degree.  Why do we have thousands of colleges all trying to teach world history on their own, individually?
  • Student loans are eliminated, and debt for current borrowers is cut by 50% or more across the board. The government eats the debt or tells the banks to suck it.  In exchange, block grants to states provide funding such that any student in America has access to a tertiary institution with quality coursework either online or within an hour’s drive.
  • Stop pushing everyone into college. Make better use of community colleges and one-year certifications.
  • College athletes will earn money based on the revenue of the institution gained from sports. In other words, these huge moneymaking sports (like football) will start to pay athletes for their labor and for the risk of injury.

More Attainable but Still A Unicorn

  • Admit the wealth and inequality-driven system that we have.
  • From the list above, eliminate student loans and a large amount of current student debt.
  • Emphasize block grant funding instead to states, getting as close as possible to free college for anyone at any age if they are earning less than a certain standard (maybe 5x the poverty level for their state and family size).
  • Rebuild expectations among high school guidance counselors that college attendance may not be the preferred outcome for any given student, and raise interest in joining the trades, doing a gap year, etc. Remove barriers that prevent gap years or students working for a while before entering college (e.g.: SC Palmetto Fellows lose their scholarship funding if they take a gap year — why?)
  • Consolidate colleges — voluntarily ask institutions to reduce, combine, or partner until they have endowments and staffing to fit a formula developed by economists who study higher education. Begin phasing out accreditation for institutions which cannot attain this.
  • Reform college sports
  • Reduce the number of residential colleges. Instead, work to make sure college campuses are surrounded by affordable housing, and raise incentives to commute to a nearby college over traveling many states away.

Is there a Plan C?  I’m not sure colleges can hold out for anything less than a massive shift in how we fund post-secondary education in the United States, and that requires state and federal shifts in how money is allocated. It also means suffocating a number of terrible American ideals, like being ok with wealth inequality as long as theoretically people might be able to afford a path out of poverty; of legacy admissions at top institutions which perpetuates wealth inequality; of relying on student loans instead of finding a public funding solution and insisting that everyone pays into good public education available to all on both K12 and college levels.

And what about literally right now?

I don’t know.

I think a lot of colleges are going to be steamrolled this fall once they bring students back and in two weeks, half of the campus has been exposed to Covid-19.

When the lawsuits start, when the beloved history professor dies of Covid19 because the administration made her teach classes in person rather than online, when half of the working parents who are also professors have to resign because they can’t school kids from home and teach full-time at the same time, when the dorms are empty again in October because this experiment failed — the colleges will still have every single problem to deal with that I’ve already lined out in this post.

Late-stage capitalism already hollowed out the foundations of America’s higher education system. It started in the 80s and 90s when we allowed our state legislators to drop funding for colleges, when we allowed Congress to pass No Child Left Behind, when we agreed to let our schools test kids 20 or 30 days every single school year instead of pushing back on that nonsense.   It’s when we allowed our states to shift to different tax structures which forced a requisite drop in funding for community development and mental health and K12 education.

This mess is our mess, and we need to own it.  A lot of colleges are going to die in the process, and it’s because no institution is willing to fall on its own sword that they’re going to force professors and students back to campus this fall, where real people might die instead.

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