Monday, July 20, 2020

Education Has Its Own First Responders

I’ve written in this space before about the out-of-control borrowing to pay to attend college (I’m having trouble, frankly,  calling it “higher education”) and the devastating effects the debt load has for years to come for most borrowers.  Now I’m wondering if maybe the COVID-19 national health emergency might do what years of preaching and warnings have failed to accomplish: slowing down the borrowing cycle and even causing a fundamental shift in thinking towards college, its value, and how to finance it.

I began to smell change in the air when some of the big-name universities sent students home during the spring semester this year and switched to online classes.   Good move.  The right move.  But it started people thinking, “Am I getting my money’s worth with just online classes?”  What about “sitting at the feet” of “learned professors”, mingling with people of different cultures, and the much-vaunted “college experience” (which usually meant little more than Friday night drinking parties at a frat house or that symbol of the 21st century American university, a climbing wall in the student center)?  Suddenly, attending college was not a lot different than playing a video game in your room, alone.  How much is THAT worth?

While the schools had little choice in the spring semester, they do have options for the fall semester; but they are shooting themselves in the foot.  From what I’ve read, many or most are going to have just online classes again—but without reducing the tuition.

I realize there are such things as fixed costs, but the long-term damage to the schools’ image in the wake of their decision may be irreparable.  Students (and their parents) care little about the fixed costs.  What they see is an education that is cheaper to provide, is basically “no frills”, yet they are having to pony up the same amount of money for it as they did the whole package.  This is especially galling when the university has a large endowment.  Take Harvard, for example.  It has an endowment of over $40 billion but doesn’t seem inclined to tap into it to lower tuition.  Smart move short-term perhaps, if their investments are down and they don’t want to sell low; but it is potentially disastrous long-term.

According to a Wall Street Journal report a few weeks ago, many idled workers—remembering the long-term unemployment of the last recession—are taking steps to prepare for a future when their former jobs have disappeared in the wake of the pandemic.   They are taking online courses, just not at the big universities.  “At LinkedIn Learning, downloads of certificate-eligible classes in professions like accounting, project management and information technology have increased more than 600% since February”, the article reads.

“Community colleges, often the first responders when it comes to developing courses for new labor-market needs, typically see enrollments rise during economic downturns”, the report went on, quoting an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
First responders.  Now that’s a term you hear a lot these days, and almost always coupled with praise.  Could it be that the humble community college with its still very competent and knowledgeable and real-life-experienced teachers is the future of higher education?  Will they have the edge in preparing students for a recession-proof career?  And will they do all that while offering it at relative bargain prices and at the expense of enrollment numbers at the bigger universities?

Students and their parents should give serious consideration to the local community college as the first stop in post-secondary schooling.  It may serve as the last stop in launching a successful career.  It can certainly be a money-saving way to get the basic classwork out of the way before transferring to a four-year college, especially since so many of the latter have guaranteed admission agreements with nearby community colleges.  And that is how the community college may save the financial life of many a student in the aftermath of the pandemic, as Americans reconsider how they obtain their education and ponder what it’s really worth.

Until next time,


 Do not deceive yourselves.  If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise.” I Corinthians 3:18 NIV®*

*Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV®
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