higher education

What Is College Without the Campus?

This crisis will reshape higher education — and not just this fall.

Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow
Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow
Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow

The mythical American curtain-raiser to adulthood, the four (or so) years of finding-yourself freedom and higher learning, is having a reckoning. May 1, the date when most colleges ask that the students to whom they’ve offered admission declare their intentions for the fall, has come and gone with many students (and their parents) unsure of what they should do. Facing the prospect of mass deferrals, many schools are granting families extra mull time because nobody, not the schools, not the families, not public-health experts or politicians, knows whether it will be safe or wise (or legal) to be on campus in September.

The financial wreckage from that uncertainty could be massive. Already, the University of Michigan anticipates losses of $400 million to $1 billion this year across its three campuses. California’s university system suffered $558 million in costs due to the coronavirus in March alone. Meanwhile, the number of students pursuing a college degree could be the smallest in two decades. According to an April survey of 1,100 high-school seniors and current college students by SimpsonScarborough, which specializes in higher-education research, domestic undergraduate enrollment for four-year institutions could decline by 20 percent. One out of ten high-school seniors report that they no longer plan to attend a four-year institution. A quarter of current college students say they wouldn’t return or it is “too soon to tell,” and 12 percent of high-school seniors are thinking they’ll take a gap year, as opposed to the normal 3 percent. And this is still with the possibility of campuses being open in the fall; if college remains purely an online pursuit come September, those numbers will almost definitely grow.

Even before the pandemic, college seemed on an unsustainable path — tuition was rising, as was student debt. Many state schools never recovered the taxpayer funding lost during the Great Recession. The richest schools have become unimaginably richer, hoarding their endowments while educating a tiny, lucky elite, while the student masses, seeking the credentialing necessary to step behind the picket fence of a middle-class life, commute to nonresidential schools, often while working full time. Those are also the kids most likely to drop out under financial strain — and everybody is under financial strain right now — the thin membrane of space in their budgets that allows them to study suddenly gone.

The pandemic has not only exacerbated college’s underlying economic instability but has, at least for now, upended the form of the university itself, as student life is reduced to a pixelated screen and the college experience is stripped of its self-realizations and rites of passage, its a cappella groups and keggers, hookups and hacky sack. The question now is whether and to what extent those changes will persist beyond the current crisis. Will this mass experiment with online education turn more students on to lower-cost online degrees, or will it only make the in-person experience of college life seem all the more valuable? The pandemic is a monkey wrench dropped into the middle of our cobbled-together public-private higher-education machine, freezing it up and, just possibly, breaking it.

Six Students on Whether to Defer

“I’ll definitely defer. Most international students do not get financial aid. And so the cost-benefit analysis of paying $35,000 per semester to take classes on Zoom is just not worth it. Especially with the global economy at the moment, most of the foreign currencies have devalued very, very heavily against the dollar, which makes it more expensive for us.” Maria Paz Rios, junior, Duke University

“I applied early decision to Emory. If the first semester is going to be online, I’m going to take a semester off, because it wouldn’t be as gratifying if I was doing it from my bedroom. I’ve been living in a city my entire life, and I was looking forward to meeting people from all over the world. You can’t really learn from them as much when you’re just all on a tile on the screen.” Evan Covey, incoming freshman, Emory university

“Our track season was taken away from us a week before our first meet. We didn’t even get the chance to step on the track. I text with my coach every other day, and I’ll take videos of myself running and she’ll tell me what I can do better. But you definitely don’t get that detailed coaching. If this fall semester is done virtually, I will take a leave of absence from school.” Ana Lamoso, junior, Babson College

“I don’t think I am getting really what I pay for. Some professors aren’t even teaching live. Professors are just saying, ‘Watch the old lectures from last year and take notes off that.’ I have heard one story of somebody wanting to just move to Australia, if it goes online, to take a year off. As much as I would love to be a part of that, if I were to not go next year, I would be screwed. I’d have to go for another year or two just to get back on track with my major.” Lauren Abbott, junior, University of Washington

“I think that people are starting to get the hang of online learning, so it wouldn’t be a huge deal if we still had to stay home. It would, however, be a problem for my financial aid because I am relying partially on work study. But if they end up having in-person classes, I will still go. I want to graduate more than anything, and I’m not going to let this pandemic get in the way of that. I’m going to school as a backup plan. I really want to be an actor, but I want to have a degree in something that I can fall back on.” Daniel Ward, junior, University of New Mexico

“I tested positive March 25. I had been abroad in Spain. I think I got it on my flight home. I wasn’t wearing a mask, and the guy behind me was coughing the whole flight. Because I had such a close experience with the virus, I don’t think it’s possible to try to reopen in the fall to a great degree. And if we were to be online and they were to require us to pay full tuition, I wouldn’t enroll. It just financially doesn’t make any sense to me. The backbone of the college experience is the social element.” Elizabeth Wells, junior, Brown University

A College Adviser on What She’s Heard From Admissions Officers and Freaked-Out Students

Dr. Kat Cohen, founder of elite admissions counseling service IvyWise.

Financially, colleges need to be open. Their operating budgets depend on tuition revenue, and schools need students on campus to be spending money in the bookstore or the dining hall or on sporting events. So there are a few different scenarios floating around right now for fall instruction. One is a hybrid of virtual and in person. This seems to be the most popular scenario, where colleges have larger classes being virtual and smaller classes in person in large spaces where they can better socially distance. We heard of a college considering turning an on-campus ballroom into a large classroom where students can be better spread out. They’re also looking at adjusting the residential model. Dorms are pretty small, and they’re densely populated. We’ve heard of schools that are considering buying up local hotels or even casino spaces in order to give students single rooms so they can better spread out.

There are scenarios floating around where schools just bring their freshmen to campus so they can have the “full experience” and then have the upperclassmen live off campus. There’s also been the idea that schools will bring the incoming freshmen and the seniors and have the sophomores and juniors go virtual for the year. The other scenario we’re hearing is a fully virtual fall, which is obviously not very appealing. Students at more than 25 schools are already suing their colleges for their spring tuition money and campus fees back. If colleges end up being virtual this fall and losing their tuition revenue, we’re going to see a lot more of them close.

Current high-school juniors are worried about what the admissions process will look like in the fall, and colleges really want to put high-school students’ minds at ease. So the admissions process is going to look a little different. The admissions process is already what we call holistic. Grades and test scores are still the most important elements, but with limited testing and many students receiving pass-fail grades this spring, I think we’re going to see a big shift toward what I would call softer application elements, like essays, activities, and recommendations. The test-optional movement has been gaining momentum for a while, and I think this is the shift that needed to happen to expand this effort.

I’ll tell you what we’re doing right now with our students: We’re advising them to continue to enthusiastically engage with their virtual learning so they can enhance the recommendation letters. Recommendations are going to be another one of those “soft factors” that colleges are going to be relying on for the admissions process for fall and even into next year.

It’s important for students to take a step back and find things to fill their time that are going to engage their core interests and make them happy — maybe what they didn’t have time for during the school year. Colleges really want to see how students adapt to this unusual time. And while they’re not expecting students to be creating vaccines or writing novels, they want to see them getting creative. So maybe they’re very interested in art history and pursuing this with online virtual tours of street art around the world and writing a blog about it. They’re reading more about their areas of interest and reading more books in general outside of school. They’re helping out more in the home. I mean, there are other things they could be doing that are valuable.

Some of the tougher conversations are with the athletes because they may or may not be able to play their sport. Our international students are the most unsure if they’re going to be able to attend in the fall, even if school is open. But we’re also talking to families where the student is on a wait list and all they want to do is get off the wait list. They don’t care if school is online. And for the families who can afford it, and the student has gotten into their top-choice school, they are for the most part saying they’ll take whatever is offered to them because they are so happy about getting into that first-choice school. They’re thinking, Well, the first year might not be the same, but, you know, the second, third, and fourth year it’s going to be great.

—As told to Anna Silman

Two University Heads on Their Survival Strategies

Carol Christ, Chancellor, University of California, Berkeley 

Pandora’s box has already opened: There is a fair amount of delivery, at varying levels of success, of curriculum remotely. But what will be different now is that every college and university will have had some experience with remote learning and can choose how and when it’s appropriate to use it. I think we’re going to see a lot more hybrid instruction that might be able to overcome some of the barriers distance or room size have imposed on classes.

But I don’t think there’s going to be one megauniversity that successfully embraces this partnership [with a tech company] and everybody else is out of business, because there’s a social dimension to the college experience that’s really ingrained in our culture. Kids and their families are still going to want to spend time going to college in a particular place.

There are going to be some institutions that are not going to be able to make it. And I’m worried about what will happen with international enrollments because I think that our institutions should be global institutions, and I worry that there’s going to be a real chilling effect on that.

Philip J. Hanlon, President, Dartmouth College

You can’t understate the importance of the psychological shift that’s gone on within the faculty in traditional colleges and universities. Historically, online was not what we did. It wasn’t that it was bad; it’s just what we did was different. Now, online is a capability that we have. I think that this COVID pandemic is going to speed up the diversification of our educational models, but if there’s anything that this pandemic has highlighted for us at Dartmouth, it is how much our students miss being in residence. I imagine that a kind of passive learning experience could be developed in conjunction with Google or Microsoft and be widely disseminated, but I don’t think it will achieve the same kind of mental growth and quality of mind development. If you think about it, the age-old way I would notice someone was falling behind is I would be lecturing in class and I would look for the puzzled, deer-in-headlights look on Joe’s face. That’s why I think that the residential, in-person experience is going to remain the gold standard.

Four Professors on Gaming Out the Fall

“I think that in the next year or two, life overall is going to get smaller. There will be less travel, less mobility, less ambition, less wealth, more concern for health. Life at college will grow smaller too. Social life will be more circumscribed and cautious. The demand for smaller classes will rise, both for the safety they provide and for the close connection with the professor and other students. Fewer students will want to leave home for college — they’ll be going to school closer to where they grew up. Pursuing a fancy degree will mean much less than it does now. Those small colleges that can make it through this year may find themselves in very high demand next year.” —Mark Edmundson, professor of English, University of Virginia

“After the Second World War through the baby boom, there were just not enough seats in the primary schools. So there were what were called ‘double sessions’: Half the school would come in the morning; half the school would come in the afternoon. I think that could be where we’re heading in higher education, unless there is some miracle vaccine. So any given college, they would say to half of their students, ‘You’ll be here for six weeks, then you will go out and the other half will come. And during the six weeks when you’re home, you will go to school remotely.’ ” —Robert Zemsky, professor of education, University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education

“Many of the faculty are really onboard with, if we have to be online in the fall, coming up with the best way: What we could offer that’s better than just lecture-based teaching? Is there more peering into different groups of students and what they’re working on and giving feedback? It appears that what’s happening is kind of a creative surge. It’s exciting. A lot of students I’ve talked to are thinking through deferring if it’s online, but, I mean, if you defer, what are you going to do? Are you just at home in your parents’ house? Or is there some better model? Maybe you could rent a house with a bunch of other students in your year somewhere that’s really cheap. You socially distance from everyone else, you do online classes, and you try and help solve the problem.” —Melissa Franklin, professor of physics, Harvard University

“There are roughly a quarter of a million students at CUNY, many of them the first in their family to go to college. They might live in apartments with their families and sometimes don’t have their own rooms; they take a subway an hour and a half to get to class. They might not have Wi-Fi. One student told me, ‘Sorry, professor, I’m in the bathroom. It’s so loud in the house because everybody is home.’ CUNY is not a residential college, but going to campus is the only place for many of the students to learn. It used to be that our libraries are packed. These students are going through it. There are a lot who are going to drop out and work. Meanwhile, summer-school enrollment is up at Baruch, and that is online. Maybe people who would otherwise be going away to school are just going to get some credits from CUNY.” —Shelly Eversley, chair of black and Latinx studies, Baruch College, the City University of New York

And Five College Seniors on Graduating Into the Void

“I had spent four years thinking about how I was going to put my senior-thesis work up in the gallery. That’s the reason I chose Wesleyan, because when I was a junior on college tours, I stumbled upon the studio-art theses and was so impressed by the work and the turnout and the community. And then to have that just become a non-reality — it was really heartbreaking.” Josh Rabineau, senior, Wesleyan University

“I had just nabbed my dream internship at Instagram, and I was supposed to be a small-town girl in the big city and blah, blah, blah. The story is more complicated because I immigrated from China. So most of my family is still back there. I spent most of winter quarter worrying about my family, but I just thought that was completely separate from my life. And when those two started to converge, I was like, Oh no. And then my internship was canceled. I also realize that I’m, like, so fucking privileged. I feel so guilty feeling so bad for myself, especially when I look at like my family in Wuhan, like my grandparents; they hadn’t left their apartment since Chinese New Year. Like, I’m going to be fine.” —Jessica Liu, senior, Northwestern University

“I think this experience has really shown us how much value college has. I’m not talking about the actual classes but the whole opportunities you have around it. We take it for granted. But once you’re stuck in your home with no other choice, you start thinking about all of the things you could have done with it — clubs, labs, talking with teachers, asking for mentorship, stuff like that — that you didn’t. I think people undervalue that, just because college is kind of like the obvious next step for many people.” Daniela Rios, senior, Boston University

“I’m terribly, terribly sad. A lot of my undergrad was grinding, working really hard to just try to get as many opportunities as I could from being at MIT. This was the first semester where I was able to really just relax. I had my job lined up; I fulfilled all my degree requirements. It was the last semester to just really make those connections with people. What I really gained from being there is always being surrounded by these people with this energy of trying new things and building new things. Now that I’m, like, here alone, it’s a lot harder to have that energy.” —Isak Romero, senior, MIT

“I know there’s so many other problems going on in the world right now, but my graduation going online was devastating, honestly. I felt like I’m going to go through this huge transition in my life without any closure. I know I’m graduating on Sunday, but there’s nothing really marking that, so it’s hard to come to terms with. I’m a PR major. Two months ago, I felt like I was going into an insanely stable job market. It was going to be on me to pick where I wanted to work, as opposed to, like, a company finally offering me something, and now it’s the complete opposite. It’s kind of just a scary reality going forward to enter this job market as a new graduate.” —Chloe Citron, senior, Syracuse University

*This article appears in the May 11, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

What Is College Without the Campus?