What If College Students Simply Don’t Return in the Fall?

As a college professor who meets with thousands of students nationwide, I regularly tell students that the bedrock of my own college experience almost 20 years ago was the meeting and mixing with students from around the world. My classes were generally unremarkable, but what made the collegiate bubble so exceptional were the early Saturday morning tailgates, midnight runs for donuts with close friends, or long hikes exploring areas around San Francisco. The discussions that I had in the dorms and the dining halls over my four years changed my thinking and my life, and today my friends are doing incredible things from serving in the halls of Congress, to representing the nation at the Olympics, to becoming incredible parents and agents of change who all continue to enrich my life. These are the moments where I really learned about life and I still cherish them decades later.

Now that I’m a teacher with my own students, I keep those days in mind. While I love my seminars, the memories that linger are those where we spend time outside of the classroom. Just this winter before we all scattered, a group of my students and I met in New York City to attend a strange panel about polarization and the internet, and we ended up bonding over dim sum for hours afterward. I have so many more stories like this and these experiences make up the real secret of the residential college experience which cannot be done over Zoom; I have certainly tried. The best teachers and technologies cannot be substitutes for late night debates and discussion, and our nation’s students know this.

Meanwhile, countless school presidents have made public statements where they insist on reopening in some form with impractical distancing measures or hope to go virtual. On the one hand, it’s understandable. The Covidian era has placed hundreds if not thousands of our nation’s colleges and universities, like my own, under existential threat. But the heads of these schools are leading their institutions over a cliff by failing to understand their key constituents: the students. What if they simply don’t show up?

Presidents and trustees are deluding themselves into thinking that students will return in mass or are willing to pay the remarkably high-tuitions that have become a hallmark of our secondary educational system, especially given the deep financial contraction that has impacted almost everyone. Many colleges are not discounting tuition and students are cost sensitive to the point that almost 40 percent of students regularly opt to skip their first-choice college because of cost-related reasons.

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