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As colleges go bankrupt due to COVID, higher education will actually get better: op-ed

A pair of professors warn that coronavirus could be the final nail in the coffin for many colleges — and that’s a good thing.

With so many colleges predicted to close, coupled with employers and campus administrators putting more of an emphasis on a college education, the “sunny side of all of this is that a stronger system of higher education will emerge, one re-focused on educating students rather than on selling a ‘college experience,’” the professors argue.

Duquesne University Professor Antony Davies and University of Arizona Professor James Harrigan draw on research by NYU marketing Professor Scott Galloway, who concluded that up to 20 percent of colleges could close due to coronavirus.

Galloway made the estimate by calculating the vulnerability of colleges based on several factors.

The school closures and the related drop in revenue for colleges should spur university officials to reorganize and reevaluate their degree offerings, Davies and Harrigan argue in a recent essay for the Foundation for Economic Education.

Davies and Harrigan wrote:

Just like any other venture, colleges will go out of business when they become insolvent. There is nothing special about a college in this respect. Since 2016, some 52 colleges and universities have closed their doors or merged with other institutions. With the new reality of COVID-19, this trend will accelerate. Big state schools and those in the Ivy League will come out the other side to be sure. But small liberal arts colleges will not be nearly as fortunate.

But that’s only the beginning of the very bad news for at-risk institutions. The COVID-19 related downturn has caused any number of young people to ask themselves whether they want to go to college at all given the exorbitant costs. For the first time in decades they are asking the right sorts of questions about college. The most important question, of course, is whether college is a good investment.

They pointed out the wide gap in degrees and earnings. While STEM students can expect career earnings of $3 million, degrees in piano performance or early childhood education have a negative return on investment.

“Most majors ending in the word, ‘studies’ (Film Studies, Organizational Studies, Urban Studies, Liberal Studies) deliver a financial return anywhere from one-third to one-tenth that of the STEM majors,” the professors said.

They further elaborated:

As institutions compromise standards in the name of increasing student numbers, employers will come to realize that, while some college majors remain valuable, a college degree in general isn’t necessarily so. As COVID forces universities to offer classes online, students will come to realize they can attend college from their own homes at significant savings. Either one of these factors would put significant financial pressure on colleges and universities. And as they tighten their belts, the first programs they’ll eliminate are those for which demand is lowest.

The sunny side of all of this is that a stronger system of higher education will emerge, one re-focused on educating students rather than on selling a ‘college experience.’ There will still be plenty of options for that ‘college experience,’ but there will likely be a number of purely utilitarian options for the budget-conscious and academically driven. In the end, COVID-19 may come to be seen as the catalyst that disrupted the American system of higher education for the better, no matter how grim it looks now.

Read the essay.

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