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by Janet Tran | June 09, 2020

From athletic competition to academic clubs and alumni networking events, innumerable assets and experiences draw students to colleges and universities around the country each year. As Colby College President David Greene recently remarked, “our whole model of education and all of its power comes from close human interaction.” In a COVID-19 world, this model is being put to a serious test, especially at prestigious institutions.

With colleges across the country deciding to conduct the fall semester virtually, many graduating high school seniors are deciding whether to forgo this semester entirely. Whether students realize it or not, their decisions ultimately come down to the value they place on the personal experiences and connections that can come from a “full” on-campus experience. This access to social capital is important, but it can no longer be the sole metric of a degree’s value, especially in a time of crisis.

Access to social capital can be paramount in a student’s decision to attend a particular school. Elite institutions with storied pasts and reputations, such as Harvard, Yale, Duke and Stanford, particularly pride themselves on offering this highly-prized commodity. It is on these campuses where students forge important, lifelong friendships and gain access to a vast network of alumni connections that can lead to well-paying jobs and heightened social status. In fact, it has been reported that more than half of jobs are filled through network connections. When students and families select colleges, they’re making an investment in the future, much beyond the typical four-year college career. Prestigious schools, therefore, can be an express lane for six-figure jobs in lucrative fields. Last year’s nationwide and egregious “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal further demonstrated the lengths some parents will go to ensure their children get on this highway. According to the Department of Justice, the scandal “facilitated cheating on college entrance exams and the admission of students to elite universities as purported athletic recruits.”

Now, as almost every sector in America continues to grapple with an unprecedented health pandemic, universities now brace for the absence of students this fall semester; their incoming students may save money by going to school closer to home, take a gap year, or skip school altogether. According to a survey by the consulting and research firm Art and Science Group, “one in six high-school seniors who expected to attend a four-year college full time before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus now think that they will choose a different path this fall.” Taking a gap year or enrolling part-time in a four-year college were the top choices equally for 35% of respondents.

For those students who have decided to skip the fall semester, paying for an online education without the full, on campus experience just isn’t worth the cost to them. In fact, many students who were forced off-campus because of quarantine restrictions are now suing their schools for full or partial refunds, claiming campus closures and class cancellations resulted in a “diminution of value.”

In an open letter to Harvard President, Lawrence S. Bacow, some members of the University’s incoming class of 2024 called on Harvard to delay the start of the fall semester in part because “as first-year students, we have yet to establish meaningful in-person relationships with classmates, faculty, advisors, and other mentors who will facilitate the transition to Harvard.”

These students’ concerns are not limited to just Harvard; colleges and universities all across the country face declining enrollment and revenue as students ponder difficult personal decisions. There is no question campus life is an integral part of the normal educational experience as well as personal and professional growth. However, as schools brace for what could be another online semester, they must reinforce to students that ultimately, the quality of their education is what will drive and sustain success in school and beyond. For students, they must also understand that the pandemic has fundamentally altered the structure of the modern workforce, and will continue to shape careers long into the future.

The value of education cannot be understated. Some form of class is always better than no class, and students should still be encouraged to pursue education where they can, even if it is online. In fact, a student at James Madison University offered a recent testimonial praising how technological advancements have enabled the successful deployment of online learning and how these advancements are uncovering “new methods and strategies that will benefit learning in the future.” Students like these will be just as successful in this new normal as they would in a regular campus environment. Institutions of higher learning must also do their part to ensure they meet students where they are, with strong academics and support resources. Arizona State University, for example, is poised for such a challenge. For years, the university has prided itself on strong virtual course offerings and has reported successful student feedback.

“As we approach the fall semester, I hope people engage as socially as possible through technology,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “At ASU, our version of COVID-19 response is different. We’ve been able to translate academic goals and course interests to a streamlined online platform. Since embracing technology, we’ve equipped ourselves well for COVID-19 or other disruptions in the future. We have had tremendous learning outcomes because we’ve built an institution and a fully immersive student body that can project into the workplace, home, and more.”

The pandemic has created an unprecedented challenge for higher education as colleges and universities scramble to assure students that an education, in the absence of physical social capital, is still indispensably valuable. No matter the school, we must remember that social capital can no longer be the hallmark of a valuable education, especially as we maintain social distancing.

Janet Tran serves as director of learning and leadership for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.

Article from washingtonexaminer.com