As Yalies return to New Haven, FOOT leaders strive to approximate something like a first-year pre-orientation experience, and administrators await the coming storm of cases and crises, the first reports of fall failures—of students returning home from closed campuses across the country—loom overhead. Georgetown, Princetown, the University of Pennsylvania, Notre Dame, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have kicked off a wave of campuses bound to close in the near future due to skyrocketing COVID-19 cases. Charitably understood, these universities’ administrators, under the pressures of an historic emergency, earnestly strove to keep their campuses open in the fall in as safe a manner as possible. But their plans always relied upon a good deal of hope and wishful thinking.

Predictions often age terribly, but I hope to set down a few about the future of the American university as the fall semester begins. Even before the pandemic, academics and authors offered grave warnings about the impending collapse of the higher education bubble. Soaring tuition rates, a national student debt crisis, and the absence of any guarantee of professional stability after graduation has made college a less and less attractive proposition to each new cohort of potential applicants. COVID-19 has only accelerated the financial constraints placed upon colleges. In April, in the immediate aftermath of universities sending students home, the American Council on Education estimated that American universities would need at least $46.6 billion just for the upcoming academic year to blunt the economic impacts of COVID. As the advocacy group stressed several times throughout its letter to congressional leaders, $46.6 billion would be a conservative estimate, aimed only at mitigating, not counterbalancing, the worst effects of COVID. Earlier that month, Yale had announced a hiring freeze through June 2021. By May, the Chronicle of Higher Education had already identified at least 50,000 furloughs or layoffs in academia. In June, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) estimated that, under current conditions, academia would lose 1.89 million jobs over the next three years. In anticipation of the coming years of famine, institutions like the University of Chicago’s Philosophy Department will not accept any graduate school applications this year.

Throughout the summer, universities, under pressure to provide a collegiate experience worth the exorbitant costs of higher education, scrambled to plan for an on-campus fall—at least until enrollment numbers were counted and tuition deposits were in. Now that the fall has come and students rush back into shared living spaces, COVID outbreaks and subsequent campus shutdowns are inevitable. As Yale Professor Graeme Wood reflected in The Atlantic, “mixing events are a large part of what higher education is about.”

But all of us students are rightly concerned about what we would get out of a COVID year at Yale, or any other college, especially if the University follows its peers and abruptly shuts down two weeks into the on-campus experiment. After all, what is a university without a campus? Students can check out the books their would-be professors wrote at a local library, instead of attending long, monotonous lectures. Or, in the age of the internet, they can open up YouTube and follow along to many of those same lectures on the wonderful Yale Open Courses series for free. If the incentive of college is the structure of deadlines and professorial intimidation forcing us lazy, lazy teens to actually do our readings, $76,000 is an awfully expensive price to pay for a glorified calendar. No, the value of the academic experience lies in the campus, immediate access to professors, and friends made during the long nights. Everything else, as Will Hunting once wisecracked, one can get for $1.50 in late fees at one’s local library.

But one unspoken assumption among students seems to be that although schools will have to tighten their belts and ruthlessly hack away at expenditures until next year, once the COVID storm passes, everyone can come out from under their shelters and return to life as normal. I think this is dead wrong. The great money-making institutions in academia are far too savvy to idly allow a moment like this to pass by, and the virtual model will, I think, ultimately benefit the wealthiest and most prestigious institutions, at the expense of America’s smallest colleges.

In 1997, the Harvard Extension School, which confers Harvard degrees and certificates to non-traditional students at the University, began developing an online platform for its courses. The program allows students “from 18 to 89” to take specialized courses of study online, taught by Harvard professors. In 2018, more than 30,000 virtual students were enrolled at the Extension School, up from just 13,000 only five years prior in 2013. Given its online background, the Extension School was primed for the COVID crisis, and even used as a model for the rest of the University in transitioning to online learning. The Extension School provides a laudable opportunity for non-traditional students to receive a Harvard education. In this respect, it is similar to projects like Yale’s Prison Education Initiative, which brings a Yale education to incarcerated citizens in Connecticut.

Nevertheless, what was once envisioned as an alternate avenue to higher education for traditionally underrepresented students may soon become a profit-motivated, corporate substitution for campus learning in general. In July, Google announced that it would create a “comprehensive new digital jobs program to help Americans get back to work, break[ing] down educational barriers by prioritizing skills.” Google will look upon its Google Career Certificate, Senior Vice President for Global Affairs, Kent Walker, stated, as the equivalent of a four-year degree. The program will cost just $49 per month for applicants, with 100,000 scholarships available, and a certificate will take just 6-8 months to complete.

This is undoubtedly a boon for struggling Americans across the country. And initially, at least, it seems Google will keep the barrier to entry low in order to rapidly popularize and normalize their new model of learning. But what will happen once virtual certificates become the industry norm, not only as supplements for traditional collegiate degrees, but substitutes for them? One can very easily imagine a future in which Google, having secured a robust annual stream of students, will jack up those prices to $10,000 for a customizable set of certificates: cheap enough to be desirable, but expensive enough to be wildly profitable.

When a vaccine is developed and the economy starts up again, it seems likely that the field of America’s 5,300 colleges will have been winnowed down. As alternative models for education, like Google’s Certificate program, become increasingly popular, those small colleges will be further hampered by competition. As long as their endowments remain robust, Harvard and Yale will never want for applicants, and large state schools, so long as they are not thoroughly gutted by state legislatures, will continue to support an on-campus learning environment for millions of students. Nevertheless, slowly, those small schools will close.

It seems conceivable that within a generation, a significant percentage—if not an outright majority—of American students will not attend a four-year, on-campus university. The most effective money-making institutions, like Harvard, might pump out hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of $10,000 certificates annually. The average American student, not lucky enough to land an ever more coveted spot at an elite institution with a truly generous financial aid program like Yale (seriously, Yale spent $180 million on financial aid last year), might settle for a combination of classes at their local community college to supplement their main course of study, a smattering of online certificates from Harvard, Google, and other big-name schools and corporations. The rich universities will get richer; the poor will close.

Of course, the current university model is, more or less, a race between the largest institutions to outearn and outspend each other. There is a reason why Alabama football coach Nick Saban is the highest-paid public employee in America. But state schools spend lavishly on amenities like athletic facilities in order to generate donor revenue, money that eventually goes back to subsidize the costs of education of students on campus. At least, that is the premise.

What happens if Harvard Extension becomes the norm, and the revenues generated from the tuition dollars of virtual students go back to support not those less-privileged virtual students, but the legacies, athletes, and admissions lottery-winning students privileged enough to receive an on-campus education? We would see, in effect, a massive wealth transfer from the less privileged to the privileged. Of course, virtual students will see some of their money indirectly reinvested into their own education: increased spending to secure accomplished professors, for example. But students living on campus, who would pay vastly more than their virtual peers, would in turn receive the vast majority of the benefits associated with Harvard’s increased spending.

If the vast majority of students no longer have access to an on-campus learning environment, what will we lose? Ever since the Wisconsin Idea envisaged the modern American university, a home not just for the scions of a state’s aristocracy, but a melting pot for students from every corner of society and the world, the university has been one of our nation’s great products. Ever since the G.I. Bill made college affordable for an entire generation, and ever since desegregation and coeducation very slowly began to reform the American university into a diverse institution, the college experience has been one of the great rites of passage for the middle class, and those Americans desperately trying to leverage their four college years into a path into the middle class.

The defense of the liberal arts education is a belabored talking point. Every student has heard the argument for diversification of the mind and exposure to peers from different socioeconomic and/or cultural backgrounds.

But I submit that, most importantly, colleges give young people on the cusp of adulthood the chance to fail, and fail spectacularly, while largely insulating them from the repercussions of such failure. Young undergraduates can wildly flail about in their first-term essays, make devastatingly hilarious mistakes in their social and romantic lives, and develop a fluency in the various social languages expected of the young and upwardly mobile. From figuring out how to navigate the complexities of a job interview to learning how to resolve an argument with a roommate without drawing an Iron Curtain across the room, the American university was built to prepare a robust middle class for the future. Today, the university provides a common experience that many Americans share, a common reference point that cultivates a national civic identity.

As we move on from COVID, the privileged among us will continue to fill out the dorms and meticulously-maintained lawns of well-endowed research universities and publicly-backed state schools. But the average American will no longer share in the collegiate experience. The problems of rising cost and sinking reward for a traditional campus education are very real. The popularization of a certificate-and-community college model of education will provide an affordable alternative to many Americans. But if the Google and Harvard-backed model of virtual education succeeds in supplanting the modern university, we will lose yet another institution that strove toward, if it never achieved, American egalitarianism. The stratification of higher education will mark yet another step in the rapid march to the socioeconomic stratification of American society. And the American university, once a nearly universal step on a broad middle class’ climb toward the American dream, will contribute even more to the expanding chasm between the narrow American aristocracy and everyone else.

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