Opening Campuses Is Risky. The Alternative Is Worse.

Opening Campuses Is Risky. The Alternative Is Worse.

Soaring coronavirus infections have provoked a lot of second thoughts among U.S. colleges and universities that were hoping to resume at least some in-person instruction in the fall. That’s understandable, but troubling.

It’s crucial to engage students in meaningful collaborative experiences that are difficult to achieve on Zoom. The damage to young people and institutions of higher learning will be deep and lasting unless administrators develop creative ways—in concert with both students and faculty—to revive key aspects of campus life.

There’s no doubt that even partial reopenings will entail risks for colleges, though different ones from those facing K-12 schools. For one thing, over one-third of tenure-track faculty are 55 or older, significantly more than the general working population—putting college professors at greater risk of contracting life-threatening forms of Covid-19. Then too, while online education is far from ideal even for college students, young adults are better equipped than children to handle virtual classes. College students also have the ability to take a gap year if they don’t like their college’s educational offerings.

Focusing on freshman, a priority for institutions like Harvard University in Massachusetts and Bowdoin College in Maine, which are allowing some students to return while offering most instruction online, will allow universities to build a campus culture for their newest recruits. Freshman also need help making the transition from high school, where learning often follows mandates, to college where, ideally, they select their own courses and schedules and develop their own intellectual interests.

The pandemic is also a good opportunity for schools such as Princeton University, which are welcoming at least one other grade cohort, to create a buddy culture aimed at supporting younger students and enlisting undergraduates in brainstorming healthy campus interactions and creative solutions to living and learning in a pandemic. Masha Gessen, an author and essayist, suggested in the New Yorker that students “could form quarantine study pods” that could “embrace mutual care and interdependence.” Such study pods could embark on team-based independent studies that might learn from, and propose solutions to, problems including pandemic living and the social upheaval sparked by the most recent police shootings — both subjects of interest to young people.

At a time when colleges are striving to recruit more students from marginalized communities, they will need to make accommodations for their financial and logistical needs. Even schools that are offering mostly virtual courses in the fall should open school buildings, including lecture halls and libraries, for students who do not have a quiet place to work or adequate internet connections at home.

More universities will need to think unconventionally. One model is Rice University in Houston, which is building outdoor structures. Another is Amherst College, which faces much colder weather in Massachusetts, and is erecting 20 tents for seminar-style classes.

All universities should strive to make accommodations for students studying subjects like laboratory sciences and fine arts, which rely on hands-on work. To be sure, these classes will require students and professors to shoulder a certain degree of risk, and will involve unanticipated expense. Oregon State University in Corvallis, for example, guarantees employers that its forestry graduates will be “field ready” and capable of doing everything from measuring trees to collecting data on forest sites — learning that cannot be supervised remotely. For classes with over 50 students, the forestry department will deliver lectures online; labs, which typically have fewer than 30 students and involve van rides to forests around the state, will be conducted in person.

To accommodate social distancing and the added costs of the pandemic, “everything will shrink,” predicted Mindy Crandall, assistant professor of forestry policy at Oregon State, noting that the university’s College of Forestry will need to hire more vans to transport students. At the same time, they will have to forgo longer trips that, in years past, exposed students to more forest ecosystems. “Students won’t get the breadth of experience and the exposure,” she said.

Indeed, public universities especially are facing a host of financial pressures that only extra funding from the federal government can alleviate. With state revenues shrinking due to Covid, universities sorely need an infusion of aid beyond the $14 billion available through the Cares Act, the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package that Congress passed in March. For example, Rutgers University in New Jersey has taken a $183 million hit so far; only $27 million of that will be made up by funds from the Cares Act.

Colleges breathed a sigh of relief when the administration of President Donald Trump backed away from its threat to withhold visas from international students, who are a source of both intellectual diversity and much-needed revenue. At Baruch College in New York City, where I teach and where international students made up 11.6% of enrollment last year and paid close to $19,000 apiece in tuition, it’s still unclear what toll Trump administration policies and the pandemic will have on international enrollments this fall.

A recent Democratic Senate proposal  to add $132 billion for higher education singles out tribal colleges and historically Black institutions, many of which are now fighting for survival. The historically Black schools produce 42% of the nation’s Black engineers and 80% of its Black judges. Such legislative initiatives need to be given priority.

At the same time, university systems like the City University of New York and the University of California that will go almost entirely online in the fall, need to do more to open campuses. Precisely because public transportation and tall buildings on many of these campuses create unique risks, universities need to include faculty unions in their planning. They will also need to lead by example, cutting administrative staff and salaries before demanding concessions from faculty, many of whom are low-paid adjuncts. CUNY recently laid off 2,800 staff, including many adjuncts who will also lose their health-care benefits.

The pandemic will test the ingenuity of college campuses. But even the most creative need political leaders and the public to put education first.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.