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  • Writer's pictureLiz Gardner

Re-opening College Campuses this Fall: Careful, Complex Considerations

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

In her New York Times opinion piece, College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall. Here's How We Do It, Brown president Christina Paxson makes a strong case for re-opening college campuses this fall — and for schools to start the process now. Paxson argues that schools must begin to carefully consider and plan for a safe return to some semblance of the more dynamic in-person, on-campus learning communities that are so critical to advance the collective in so many different ways — and ensure that all students can continue to access the higher ed experience.

We know that this pandemic has only illuminated the deep wedge between those of us who can stay at home comfortably, with access to internet and provisions and safety, and those who cannot. Higher ed — with its ridiculously high price tag and external-rewards-driven culture of admittance — only amplifies this divide.

"As amazing as videoconferencing technology has become," Paxson writes, "students face financial, practical and psychological barriers as they try to learn remotely. This is especially true for lower-income students who may not have reliable internet access or private spaces in which to study. If they can’t come back to campus, some students may choose — or be forced by circumstances — to forgo starting college or delay completing their degrees."

I, too, worry about our young people, our students — especially the ones most at risk for having their plans completely upended, without any hope at recouping their losses and reworking their plans into something new. For high school seniors readying college decisions amidst having lost all the expected reverie of a senior spring — final course work and capstone projects, prom, graduation, grad parties, summer internships, and all the other traditional place-holders — this new landscape must feel particularly unfair. What can they count on?

There's so much at stake for all our young people, who must feel a bit adrift in a sea of uncertainty right now. Of course, so many are demonstrating their trademark grit and creativity at recalibrating with growth-minded fortitude and humor, but others may get left behind, and we can't let that happen. I believe that young people are the most important part of our economy — and the most vulnerable group in all of this, given where they are in their lives. This pandemic is already causing irreversible disruption that will continue to both derail and damage their hopes & dreams — the stuff our collective future is made of. We all have a lot riding on this generation and their ability to get the education, training, and experience that is essential for seeing us all through the next twenty years — and beyond.

Not only do we need to worry about the potential longterm damage to our students, but to higher ed as an institution as well. Paxson worries, and rightly so, about the risks to the overall financial health of higher ed as many teeter on the brink of losing their grip on a more secure solvency and instead, quietly imploding: "It’s not a question of whether institutions will be forced to permanently close, it’s how many."

Is the solution to pour money into higher ed to salvage it from the probable financial wreckage this crisis will undoubtably cause? If the high price tag is indeed a fading relic of the Old BC (Before-Covid) World, can higher ed be refashioned into something that better meets the needs of a fast-changing world? It will take time to create something new. For now, I believe that re-opening college campuses this fall would help salvage what I'd argue is an integral, hugely impactful and driving force of our economy and citizenry — the education of our young people. And as Paxson argues, it will need to be done so carefully and thoughtfully to ensure the health and safety of everyone. To do so, things will need to be different. So different. But — given the certainty of how different things will be — will it even be worth it?

Law professor Diane Klein, in her recent article in Medium, titled A twenty-year professor on starting college this fall: Don’t., says no, it will not be worth it, nor is it the responsibility of students, especially "admitted freshmen, to spend a fortune or go into debt to help a cash-strapped financially-mismanaged institution stay afloat." Klein suggests that schools that were ready to implode will anyway, and perhaps should: "If they won’t be around a year from now without your tuition dollars, you’re better off finding that out without enrolling and accepting the substandard education that will be the best they can do under these circumstances."

Klein acknowledges that the main reason why students should delay starting college for another year is that there are simply too many unknowns at work: "No one knows. Schools that decide to reopen may not be able to stay that way. A few may decide, soon, not even to try. Others may put off the decision for as long as possible — but you can make your decision now." The ensuing landscape — one that reduces the college experience to an absolute skeletal framework — could prove incredibly stressful, unforgiving, harrowing, even, especially for new freshmen: "If you wouldn’t be satisfied with the bare-bones, minimum-contact all-online remote instruction being offered at the institution right now — don’t assume things will be any different, or any better, in fall 2020."

I think both Klein and Paxson would agree that education in its current online, distant learning state is simply not the same without the connective tissue that brings that framework to life, enriching and texturizing the learning experience with a richer, more fully flavored dynamic — in the way classroom and conversation spill into the hallways, pathways, playing fields, dining hall, and dorms, and beyond the campus, too, through internships and service and study abroad. It is within this connective tissue where classroom education becomes well-seasoned — and where the best learning, often unexpected and unscripted, often takes place.

Can colleges deliver enough of the goods to make it worthwhile? Even if colleges have to modify and restrict some of their learning and social spaces and delivery mechanisms in a continued measured and pro-active response to covid-19, Paxson believes that "...students will still benefit from all that makes in-person education so valuable: the fierce intellectual debates that just aren’t the same on Zoom, the research opportunities in university laboratories and libraries and the personal interactions among students with different perspectives and life experiences."

Whatever happens, my hope is that we can give our young people and students the support they need to make an enthusiastic go of it, whether in college or not. Not only are they absolutely vital to our future economic growth, but our wellbeing and survival as a planet depends on their collective and individual growth as well. In this fast-moving world, against a darkening backdrop of uncertainty and difficulty, they will be forced to shift and pivot, again and again, to find ongoing solutions to the escalating global crises — and lead with compassion and courage. The future belongs to them. I hope we can do right by them.

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