We’ve seen a great deal of discussion lately about whether our schools and colleges should re-open in the fall. We will see more.

Donald Trump says it should happen. Dr. Fauci hasn’t said it shouldn’t, but noted there will not likely be a cure or vaccine by August or September. Some Americans want everything, including schools, to re-open right now. Others want everything closed until such time, if ever, there is a vaccine that is 100 percent effective. In the meantime, European countries are re-opening their schools. Sweden never closed schools below the high school level, and is now re-opening those. They don’t have a vaccine in Europe, either.

I don’t want to get involved in the re-opening debate in this column, except to say that I’m for it, but want it handled in stages and with care. This column will address education only, with an emphasis on colleges and universities.

These have long been the subject of warnings that the steady increase in tuition, fees and other costs that has been going on for decades is unsustainable. These have far outstripped the rate of inflation in the overall economy. They have burdened parents and saddled students with huge student-loan debts. Colleges and universities, spurred by the “free money” furnished by government-guaranteed loans, have mercilessly raised tuition and fees year after year. As a result, many are top-heavy with administrative staff, who have no pedological value to the students.

These chickens are now coming to roost with a vengeance. It’s no secret that college and university administrators are worried about the revenue loss if in-person classes can’t resume in the fall, and are at the same time concerned about the effect of a sharp decline in enrollment even if the schools re-open.

For the institutions with sports programs, the monetary concerns are compounded. College football, with substantial help from men’s basketball, pays the bills for college athletic departments, including minor sports and in some cases, intramurals. The loss of revenue resulting from being unable to play a football season would be a disaster of biblical proportions for most.

Colleges are all well aware of these issues. Most public universities, and some private, are saying they plan on being open for the fall term. These include every institution in the SEC except for Vanderbilt (which is still pondering the issue, last I heard) and everyone in the ACC except Duke, Wake Forest, and Boston College, who are also still deciding. These universities can’t take the revenue hit that would come from remaining closed, in sports revenue as well as tuition and fees.

Still, one wonders if sports can continue if no one is in class except online. Can you play college football or basketball without any students on campus? That seems odd, to say the least. Athletics directors are among the worried administrators.

The colleges’ fears are justified. There are already reports that college acceptances are down, as high school graduates choose to delay college until they are sure they can be there. This development has spurred many schools to relax admissions standards in an effort to lure more students, and their money, to  their campuses.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep the country in March, most colleges and universities went exclusively to online instruction. Parents were able to see in person the education their offspring were getting from sitting in front of a screen. Reviews were very mixed.

I get that. I have worked mostly remotely for the last nine weeks. I’ve done amazingly well, and have learned to cope with ZOOM, GoToMeeting, and WebEx. There is much we can do with these platforms. But none is a perfect substitute for interpersonal interaction.

From reports, some of the most satisfied online students have been those at our regional Community College, Northeast State, where student and parent reaction has been positive. One wonders why NeSCC gets higher marks than others.

Maybe NeSCC is just better at it. The college has made a real effort to be tech-savvy over the last decade. Larger universities may have shoe-horned older or less “techy” faculty into rolls they are not used to having.

But I think another reason is money. Our community colleges are great values. They are even better values with the Tennessee Promise. Bluntly, students and parents may be more willing to pay what NeSCC charges for online learning than what they’d pay Tennessee or Virginia Tech, much less Duke or Vanderbilt.

And why shouldn’t they be?


This column originally appeared in the Kingsport (TN) Times-News.

Photo by Wokandapix (Pixabay)