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

In the debate over how to move forward, it's a mistake to assume that appreciable numbers of students will register.

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.

Relatedly, students may not be willing to pay sky high prices for an experience that is based on being able to engage in real, tangible space. 

Survey data confirms this observation. While students certainly appreciate rankings, data from the Higher Education Research Institute’s Freshman Survey for 2018 shows that 53 percent of first years stated that their school’s social and extracurricular activities were very important in helping make their decision to attend. Of the other 18 factors asked, the only responses that were ranked higher were academic reputation (68 percent) and “this college’s graduates get good jobs” (59 percent). ” Jobs and social experiences were within a handful of points of each other, suggesting that students really care about the experience factor while only 19 percent of the students said that “rankings” were very important in making their choice.

Going further, even if one accepts the branding argument that elite schools may continue to thrive while many second-tier and third tier schools fade out of business because of the pandemic, students at elite schools remain unhappy at the prospect of virtual education. Incoming Harvard and Georgetown first years are petitioning the school to postpone their openings rather than going virtual and are making that argument that real, face-to-face interaction with peers matter. Students at Brown University, which intends to reopen this fall, have raised concerns that the opening is about the school’s finances and not on the safety and well-being of the students. 

That being said, some students may return to complete their senior years, and it is true that schools have limited options as lockdowns continue with no clear COVID-19 treatments in sight. But it is a huge mistake to assume that appreciable numbers of students will register this fall. Students are unhappy with distance education and the understandably mediocre experiences they have had so far. 

Rather than thinking about the mechanics of virtual classes, we should be asking whether we will even have students at all this fall. If only a fraction of students enroll, this will only accelerate the collapse of many of our schools, especially those that are heavily tuition dependent like my own. More than a third of scheduled incoming students report in a just-conducted survey that they would defer or cancel an admittance rather than attend an all-online college; most schools cannot function with so few students.

Students are in limbo, and they are not going to pay full ticket prices for virtual education. Leaders in higher education need to step out of their echo chambers and instead start really thinking about their students and their finances. They need to ask the unpleasant question: Will students—from the most elite national schools to local colleges—even show up come September? As a professor, I am lucky whenever a student decides to sit down around the table with me for a class—our administrators need to stop taking these students for granted and rethink how to approach the fall term.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photograph by Cliff Grassmick/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera/Getty Images.