COVID-19, col­lege costs and a cri­sis that’s been years in the mak­ing

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION -

Why do so many ea­ger col­lege kids and their par­ents scrimp and save and go into five-fig­ure debt to pay for higher ed­u­ca­tion?

To get that full “col­lege ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Be­cause col­lege is not just about aca­demics, as im­por­tant as that is. It’s also very much about im­mers­ing one­self in a new en­vi­ron­ment and get­ting the chance to be­come an adult — to move away from home and into a dorm, hang out in the stu­dent union, get to know peers from vastly dif­fer­ent back­grounds.

And, yes, it’s about those all-night par­ties.

None of that is pos­si­ble, at least not safely, in this time of COVID-19. Col­leges that have wel­comed stu­dents back to cam­pus al­ready for fall have seen coro­n­avirus in­fec­tions sky­rocket, in­clud­ing more than 100 cases at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Ur­bana-Cham­paign. Na­tion­wide, more than 26,000 cases and 64 deaths have oc­curred at some 1,500 col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties since the pan­demic be­gan, a New York Times anal­y­sis found.

It’s no sur­prise, then, that most col­leges have de­cided to rely on par­tial or com­plete re­mote learn­ing for now, as the Chron­i­cle of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion re­ports.

And it’s no sur­prise, in turn, that stu­dents and par­ents are up in arms about be­ing ex­pected to pay the same high tuition. They’re sign­ing pe­ti­tions de­mand­ing re­bates. They are, with­out a doubt, get­ting less for their money in terms of aca­demics. On­line lec­tures and sem­i­nars will al­ways be sec­ond-best.

As North Carolina State Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Bret C. Dev­ereaux wrote re­cently in The At­lantic, “With on­line classes, learn­ing out­comes of­ten dis­ap­point, and vir­tual in­struc­tion runs counter to the most im­por­tant as­set at a ma­jor univer­sity: per­sonal in­ter­ac­tion with highly qual­i­fied ex­perts.”

But let’s un­der­stand. The United States faced a cri­sis in the es­ca­lat­ing costs of higher ed­u­ca­tion even be­fore COVID-19. The pan­demic has only made a bad prob­lem worse. Fix­ing the prob­lem now will in­clude most of the solutions that we and oth­ers were push­ing long be­fore any­body ever heard of COVID-19.

Col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties have to do a bet­ter job of con­tain­ing costs. Here in Illi­nois, the Leg­is­la­ture has to bet­ter ful­fill its obli­ga­tion to fund state uni­ver­si­ties, rather than per­mit ever-higher tuition bills. And, if our na­tion wants an ed­u­cated work­force that can com­pete with the world, fed­eral fund­ing to higher ed­u­ca­tion should be in­creased. Col­lege grads, too, will need more op­tions for loan re­lief.

No easy res­o­lu­tion

There’s no quick fix, though we urge uni­ver­si­ties to do what they can im­me­di­ately to re­lieve the fi­nan­cial bur­den on fam­i­lies that may be deal­ing with job losses and other dif­fi­cul­ties caused by this pan­demic.

Case in point: The Univer­sity of Illi­nois sys­tem has created a spe­cial fund to pro­vide at least $36 mil­lion to help stu­dents with COVID-re­lated costs, in­clud­ing cov­er­ing this year’s tuition in­crease for all in-state stu­dents.

But the hard truth is that col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties them­selves are in a bind. Even dur­ing the pan­demic, they must pay fac­ulty and other em­ploy­ees, yet they also face daunt­ing new ex­penses for the tech­nol­ogy and pro­gram­ming nec­es­sary for cam­pus-wide on­line learn­ing.

“It’s not as sim­ple as sim­ply pro­rat­ing or cut­ting the cost [of tuition] be­cause there are still bills to be paid,” Tony Mines­tra of the Illi­nois As­so­ci­a­tion of Col­lege Ad­mis­sion Coun­sel­ing told the Sun­Times re­cently. “There are some costs schools sim­ply can’t un­tan­gle them­selves from. They’ve got to run the cam­pus.”

In Illi­nois, uni­ver­si­ties ex­pect to lose mil­lions of dol­lars in room and board rev­enue this year be­cause so few stu­dents will be liv­ing on cam­pus. Loy­ola Univer­sity Chicago alone is brac­ing for a $50 mil­lion loss.

Years of state neg­li­gence

Col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties al­ready were reel­ing, in par­tic­u­lar, from years of state fund­ing cuts, which have led to crazy high tu­itions, which has led to an ex­plo­sion of stu­dent and fam­ily col­lege debt.

Ac­cord­ing to a study by the Cen­ter on Bud­get and Pol­icy Pri­or­i­ties, in­fla­tion-ad­justed per-stu­dent state fund­ing de­clined in 41 states be­tween the Great Re­ces­sion of 2008 and 2018. In all, pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties lost $6.6 bil­lion in state funds. Some 30% of col­leges al­ready were run­ning an op­er­at­ing deficit even be­fore the pan­demic.

At the same time, col­leges have to shoul­der part of the blame. They have ramped up spend­ing on ex­pen­sive yet ques­tion­able ameni­ties — spank­ing new ath­letic cen­ters, plush dorms, fancy din­ing halls — that have been a fac­tor in driv­ing up over­all col­lege costs.

Two-year col­leges

One other po­ten­tial big so­lu­tion of­ten talked up by pol­i­cy­mak­ers — free com­mu­nity col­lege — is well worth a more se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion. It would give ev­ery high school grad­u­ate a chance to earn at least a two-year de­gree at a very low cost. And it might jump­start a healthy com­pe­ti­tion with four-year schools, forc­ing them to work harder at con­trol­ling costs and of­fer­ing more value for the buck.

There was a time, not so long gone, when an am­bi­tious kid of lim­ited means could work his or her way through a four-year col­lege with just a part-time job, a de­cent state grant or schol­ar­ship, a mod­est stu­dent loan and maybe a lit­tle help from the folks at home.

In an egal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety that be­lieves in ev­ery young per­son’s right to make some­thing of them­selves, why should it be any dif­fer­ent now?


A lone pedes­trian walks on the cam­pus of the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Chicago.

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