College Is Worth It, but Campus Isn’t

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Each fall, millions of students head to college campuses. Most stay close to home, but many crisscross the country to study in a different state.

Students typically move into crowded housing and reconnect with friends at parties, mixers and bars. When classes start, they customarily file into large lecture halls and small seminar rooms, sitting close together, heads bent over books and laptops.

This is a joyful scene in most years. In a pandemic it would be an epidemiological nightmare.

Colleges will have to look very different this fall if they are to avoid accelerating the pandemic. But financial and political pressures are forcing many schools to make choices involving difficult trade-offs between their students’ education, public health and their own economic well-being.

Colleges were among the first institutions to respond when much of the world went into lockdown this spring: Campuses closed, and students finished their interrupted semesters online. Now, college administrators are pondering how they will reboot this fall.

Here’s a scarily plausible chain of events. Colleges bring students back to campus — where they act like college students. They meet over coffee, go to parties and bars, pair off on dates and congregate in crowded dorms. The virus quickly spreads among students, who mostly recover quickly or are entirely asymptomatic.

But soon the virus reaches the older, more vulnerable members of the faculty and staff, as well as local residents. Infections surge. Teaching hospitals care for the ill at the larger universities, but small, regional hospitals near rural colleges are quickly overwhelmed.

No one wants to see this happen. Unfortunately, the choices that minimize contagion tend to undermine the broader college experience, which is built on intense social interaction in classrooms and at cultural events, political activities and sporting events.

Updated

The California State University system plans to keep the education of its nearly half a million students online. So does California’s community college system, which enrolls two million students. These campuses will remain shut down.

But many four-year colleges plan a mix of online and face-to-face learning. Boston University is allowing its students to choose between learning exclusively online and taking some classes in person, as is Northeastern University, also in Boston. Stanford will allow just half of its students on campus each quarter.

To minimize student travel, many schools are compressing the academic calendar and eliminating breaks. The University of Michigan will send students home at Thanksgiving to complete the semester online.

Throughout the country, students who do return will find a transformed campus. At many colleges, students will live alone in dorm rooms, eating boxed meals or going to dining halls in staggered shifts. There will be few, if any, college-sanctioned parties or sports events. Students will wear masks, as will their teachers and campus workers — though mask policies will vary by school, just as they differ across states and cities.

Classes will largely be online, even at the many colleges that are bringing students back to campus. There simply isn’t enough classroom space to do otherwise: Once students are spread six feet apart — the standard requirement for social distancing — classrooms can hold only a small fraction of their usual capacity. Huge lecture halls built for hundreds can safely hold a few dozen, scattered among rows of empty seats.

Many students struggle with the online format, but that is a moot point. The operative question is where students will do their largely online learning: from their homes or on campus.

Colleges can plausibly influence how students behave in classroom buildings, but they have a far weaker position outside class. After all, colleges have struggled for years to prevent alcohol abuse and other risky behaviors on campus. Keeping college students from getting physically close to one another is, many fear, an impossible task.

Recent coronavirus outbreaks in Florida and South Carolina have been linked to fraternity parties and bars popular with students. Evidence from Japan indicates that young people seeded many of that country’s outbreaks by gathering at karaoke clubs and bars.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 24, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


Consider the problems in Fort Benning, Ga., where the Army trains recruits. Just four of 640 recruits tested positive for the coronavirus when they arrived this spring — but within a few weeks, more than a hundred were infected. It is unlikely that colleges will be more effective than the Army in enforcing strict social distancing and safety protocols.

Yet some students must return to campus to continue their education, for many reasons. Their families may not have a quiet or safe place where they can study, or there’s no reliable internet. And some classes, such as a nursing internship or a chemistry lab, simply can’t be taught online. Many colleges are putting a priority on finding space in housing and classrooms for these exceptions. But for the typical student, whose courses will largely be online, learning this fall does not require being on or near campus.

Given the enormous health risks involved in bringing students back, why are so many colleges promising to open their campuses? The answer is simple: Their financial survival depends on it. Many four-year colleges, especially the most selective schools, provide not just classroom learning but also the social experience of clubs, athletics, culture, politics and professional networking.

Without the promise of a campus experience, some students may opt to take a year off or enroll in a cheaper school. In addition, public colleges are facing sharp cuts from state governments coping with plunging tax receipts. If these colleges also lose revenue from tuition, fees, room and board, they will be forced to shutter programs and lay off large numbers of employees and faculty. At best, it would take decades for higher education to recover from such losses and disruption.

With no indication that the federal government is prepared to step in quickly with a financial rescue plan for higher education, colleges and universities are being forced to choose between bad alternatives.

But a toll will be paid, and it will largely not fall on students. Dining-hall workers, custodians, secretaries, librarians, medical personnel — as well as older faculty members — are far more vulnerable.

As an economist, I’m frequently asked, “Is college still worth it?” My answer is almost invariably yes: The lifetime payoff to earning a college degree is so very large, in health in wealth, that it dwarfs even high tuition costs. College is an especially smart choice during a terrible job market.

But in this pandemic, the college experience has to change. Gathering students on campus is a gamble that could generate outsize risks for society and only modest benefits for students.

Susan Dynarski is a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @dynarski

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