Physical Presence, Part 3

To continue the subject of Part 1 and Part 2 . . .

Like equating time spent in a physical classroom with knowledge learned, the assumption that learning always matters most to U.S. college students does not mesh with reality. U.S. universities in the main operate on the basis of their customers’ revealed preferences. Experiences that seem to be just as attractive as or more attractive than learning to these students:

Where there is smoke, there is fire
  • Occupational credentialing. Like it or not, students are aware of the economic benefits of college. Accurately or not, many students perceive that these benefits derive from meeting the requirements for a diploma, not from what is learned. Given that elite universities in the USA function as prestige goods, I can’t say that this view is entirely incorrect.
  • Maturation and individuation. Students are willing to pay (or, in reality, borrow) tens of thousands of dollars to live independently of their parents for the first time. Colleges that cater to 18-22 year olds are happy to provide this revenue-generating service.
  • Recreation and entertainment. Many first-time, full-time students choose a four-year institution on the basis of whether they will be able to continue to play the sport that they played in high school, for example. Others are quite willing to watch this happen, even at taxpayer expense.

How did the pandemic affect student demand for and access to these experiences? It’s probably too early to identify any changes in what a bachelor’s degree from State U. signals to employers, given the economy’s current strong demand for labor. College certainly wasn’t a maturation experience while campuses were closed. Anecdotally it seems like students were happy to return to campus dormitories and apartments, regardless of the cost, and university CFOs breathed a sigh of relief as auxiliary revenue streams kicked in again — despite the continuing national decline in college enrollment. And I don’t know of any collegiate athletic programs that have been dismantled post-pandemic.

But there does seem to be something different in the wind. I know of several institutions where enrollment began declining several years ago, federal pandemic aid provided a temporary stopgap, and now broad swathes of academic programs are being eliminated as they try to budget cut their way to financial viability. I also am seeing reports of the customer-facing employees of higher education — faculty and graduate students — abandoning academia for better salaries and greater job satisfaction elsewhere. The same seems to be true of mid-level non-instructional university staff. Last, the few campuses that I’ve been on over the last year seem less lively than has customarily been the case. Fewer people walking between buildings, less crowded parking lots, and more empty chairs. Maybe this is because people discovered during lockdown that the benefits of working or studying remotely were at least equal to its cost.

It looks from my biased perspective that the pandemic might have been my long-awaited inflection point for higher education. The online experience may be quantitatively or qualitatively different from in-person instruction, but as I’ve stated above, learning for learning’s sake has not been the top priority for many college students for quite a while.

I’m reminded of MIT president L Rafael Reif’s statement in June 2020 about MIT’s plan for its upcoming fall semester — “Everything that can be taught effectively online will be taught online” (italics original). I’m also reminded of last year’s purchase of edX, MIT’s non-profit MOOC platform, by the publicly-traded company 2U. In ten years, edX went from nothing to a market valuation of $800 million. There are at least some people out there who think that physical presence in the classroom is no longer essential to the educational experience of college.