I hope the global pandemic ends soon, because we’ve found a cure or discovered a vaccine. But until then, we’ll just have to learn to make do, despite life not being anywhere near normal. (Even those who claim otherwise know it.) What began as a health crisis has evolved into a full-blown systemic threat, affecting politics and international relations, the economy, and education, among others.

I’ll be centering on the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on college education and what we can reasonably expect from the short to the middle term. Most references will be to universities in English-speaking countries, although they would be relevant as well for institutions in Europe and in other industrialized regions. In any case, seats of higher learning elsewhere could benefit by keeping an eye on these developments. 

It’s common knowledge that the Chinese word for crisis, Wéijī, is actually composed of two characters, one meaning “danger”, and the other, “opportunity”. We also know the English “crisis” derives from the Greek verb “krínein”, meaning “to decide”, thereby indicating an occasion when the need for crucial choice or thoughtful judgement comes to fore. Let’s apply these cues to our analysis of college pre- and post-Covid.

Even before Covid-19 set in, college education both in North America and Europe was already in crisis, mainly for demographic reasons. In five years, the pool of applicants would have shrunken by a fourth, and by some estimates about 20% of US colleges, specially the smaller ones with less than a thousand students, may be forced to shut down.

Part of the solution is to try to fill the halls with foreign students from developing countries, and in particular, China, who besides can be charged full tuition. My own institution, a medium-sized private university in northern Spain, has about a quarter of its students coming from abroad, mostly from Latin America.

A second factor refers to costs and financing, although perhaps this is more acute in the US. In the past forty years, tuition fees have risen by 260%, double the inflation rate, such that a four-year degree could easily cost between $200,000 from a private college, and $100,000 from a public one. University education, worth $5.8 billion in 2018, is Australia’s fourth largest export, after commodities such as coal, iron, and natural gas, and caters mostly to Asians. In Europe, the majority of universities are publicly funded, with none or very low fees, that can be paid off with cheap loans. But the problem then becomes finding a job. 

This was precisely the situation MOOCs (“Massive Online Open Courses”) sought to address in the early 2000s. Through the use of digital technologies, marginal costs for every nth user would practically disappear as college-level instruction was broadcast to millions. Such initiatives were not free from difficulties however, beginning with student motivation, retention and degree completion, as well as economic sustainability, all of which significantly improved once MOOCs started collecting fees, however minimal. 

Then came the Wuhan virus.

Covid-19 certainly did not cause all the troubles afflicting college education, but it served to exacerbate them. First by preventing classroom gatherings where most traditional instruction took place. The loss of personal contact was worsened by lockdowns or grave restrictions in freedom of movement amongst people scattered in different time zones across the globe. Many national borders are still closed and some warn they will remain that way at least until Christmas. For sure, not all international students will be able to return to school in September.

Second is the economic fallout with all non-essential business put on hold. Not only government revenues, but private incomes as well have taken a big hit, such that students and their families begin to question the value of a college education. We know the price, but is it worth it? No one is having to grapple with this existential question as much as the Class of 2020, as they look for a job under the worst labor market conditions since the Great Depression.   

So how will college be transformed in the wake of Covid-19?

Pundits speak of at least three different models.

First is the “Cyborg University”, which is like MOOCs on steroids, offering everything online. The only difference now is the buy-in from BigTech, poised to partner with the best brands in education to cash in on the tremendous growth opportunities.

Previous, not-for-profit joint ventures such as Harvard/MIT-EdX and Stanford-Udacity/Coursera could now morph into Udacity/Google-Amazon and Coursera/IBM. They’d pay star-professors handsomely for broadcast lectures while an army of TA-equivalents would be given a pittance for the nitty-gritty of student engagement.

Once more this illustrates the “Matthew effect”: to those who have, more shall be given, while to those who have little, even that will be taken away. Presumably there’d be limited subject offerings, most of which will be skills-based and immediately job-friendly. 

Second is the “Parallel University” model with a premium offline and a standard online option. The University of Michigan and Georgia Institute of Technology, for instance, have gone down this route with some full degree programs. This formula introduces some sort of caste system in studies even in the same institution. 

Third is the temporary “Hybrid model” between online and offline teaching, without renouncing the residential college experience to the extent health conditions permit. On the one hand, international students may be stranded in their home countries, unable to travel, and on the other, locals may be caught in a lockdown or forced to self-isolate because they’re sick or have been in close quarters with someone who is. In any case, college facilities cannot simply expand to accommodate everyone while observing mandatory social distancing measures.

The stop-gap alternative to classroom teaching then becomes virtual, online instruction, both in synchronous and asynchronous modes. But who would pay tens of thousands of dollars for what amounts, essentially, to a series of Zoom sessions? The hefty price tag would be extremely difficult to justify. So every effort must be taken to try to make up for the loss of personal engagement through staggered attendance, modified calendars, campus testing and tracing, social bubbles, and technology.

The dangers and opportunities among post-Covid college formulas are clear. Now how do we choose?

To decide which among the three models fits best, individuals should consider what they really pursue with a college education and why. For some, it might be mere credentialing, having a certificate they’re legally up to the job or function they wish to perform. For others, it might mean gaining some instruction, perhaps not much different from the information available from Wikipedia or the practical knowledge imparted from YouTube.

But there will be some more who truly seek the full college experience, a period of intense learning and socialization with professors and classmates at a special developmental stage, not only to form a dense web of contacts to move forward professionally, but more importantly, to become the best version of themselves, intellectually and morally, and serve society.     

Republished from Work, Virtues and Flourishing.

Alejo José G. Sison teaches ethics at the University of Navarre and Georgetown. His research focuses on issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and...