Colleges and universities pack students into dorms, classrooms, and parties. Now they have to figure out how to do that during a pandemic. The staff writer Adam Harris joins the podcast Social Distance to discuss what schools are planning for the fall.

Listen to the episode here:

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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: Does college exist anymore?

Adam Harris: [Laughs] Yeah, college exists, but it’s in this weird hybrid existence. What colleges are facing right now is bringing kids back into this perfect situation for transmission. Colleges are created to keep people close, and now you’re trying to introduce the idea of social distance, trying to introduce the idea of limited contact. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, and there are a lot of people who think that it’s an impossible thing to do and that [college] leaders are deluding themselves and their ability to do this at the scale that they’ll need to by August.

James Hamblin: What are some of the plans that are being laid out at colleges?

Harris: Everything is contingent. College leaders are forecasting and broadcasting this idea of certainty that we’re gonna be on campus in the fall and we’re going to start the semester earlier so that we can end the semester sooner. They’re putting plexiglass in different places. They’re talking about, Maybe we only bring our freshmen and sophomores to campus and juniors and seniors stay away for a longer period of time. The broad sweep of it is that they don’t know what the virus will actually look like by August; they don’t know what the numbers will look like; they don’t know their testing capacity. They’re planning for any possible range of outcomes from actually being on campus to a remote semester, similar to the one that we saw for the second half of this spring.

Hamblin: So there are some colleges in the U.S. that are saying, “We’re going to largely be on campus,” and others that are saying, “We’re going to be largely remote”?

Harris: Yeah, essentially. You have the Cal State system that says, “We’re going to be remote, for the most part.” And then you have colleges like Notre Dame and Duke saying, “We’re still going to be on campus.” In fact, you have college-football players going back already. And one of the things you’ve seen very quickly is that a lot of student athletes are testing positive for coronavirus. So at Clemson, 23 tested positive. At LSU [Louisiana State University], a quarter of its roster tested positive. So you’re seeing a preview. And these are some of the healthiest students on campus.

Wells: Are they reversing course? Are they changing their plans?

Harris: No. LSU’s senior associate athletic trainer told Sports Illustrated that it’s not surprising that we’re seeing a rise right now and that it’s a pandemic, so we shouldn’t be shocked that we’re seeing these numbers. Which is true, but their follow-up is to stick to a wait-and-see [approach].

Hamblin: Theoretically, colleges are really distilling down what’s essential here. Many places have deemed football essential. Why?

Harris: It doesn’t boil down exclusively to a matter of the bottom line, but it has a lot to do with it. There are a handful of colleges that make a lot of money from football. I mean, most schools that have college sports aren’t going to make money from those sports. But there are some schools where they can make upwards of $100 million for one football season. They’re incredibly reliant on that revenue, which is probably a bad business model. But it is the reality. For a lot of schools, reopening is a question of what kind of money would be lost if they were to stay online for the next semester?

In some places, campus housing accounts for 25 percent of the college’s revenue. It’s forcing colleges to reassess whether that’s been the best business model. They’ve been thinking about that for years, but the pandemic kind of threw it into sharp relief that oh wait, maybe we have an incredibly flawed business model.

Wells: What were the most interesting preexisting questions about higher education before the pandemic?

Harris: Well, people were very concerned about how reliant a lot of colleges were on tuition and fees. I wrote a story in 2018 that was called “Here’s How Higher Education Dies.” I talked to a higher-education futurist named Bryan Alexander. He’d been looking at the numbers and he saw that enrollment figures were dropping, and with that enrollment drop there’s less of a pool for colleges to choose from, meaning colleges that are tuition-dependent are fighting even more to get those students who are able to pay tuition. And fewer students are able to pay the full-freight tuition now. You’re looking at this situation where you have a lot of small colleges that are in rural areas with fewer than 2,000 students and endowments that are less than $50 million, and they are trying to figure out ways to survive. The thought was that there is going to be a large proportion of those types of institutions that might not make it through the next 10 to 15 years. And then the pandemic comes and kind of accelerates and emphasizes those vulnerabilities that those institutions already had.

Wells: Are there projections on how many colleges might close?

Harris: There have been ranging projections from dozens to hundreds, but I think people should exercise caution. Higher education is incredibly resilient.

Wells: So you don’t think this is the end of a high percentage of colleges in this country?

Harris: I don’t think this is the end of a high percentage of colleges, but I do think that colleges are deluding themselves about what the fall will actually look like and their ability to contain anything that might happen on their campus.

Hamblin: Is it possible that teachers will be remote and the students will be sitting in the classroom?

Harris: That is a possibility, and some schools have offered waivers for faculty who have health issues so that they can teach remotely. But I think you have to look beyond the faculty to the staff, to the people who are going to be tasked with cleaning classes and the residence halls. They’re consistently being thrown into this situation where their health is also being put at risk.

Wells: Have there been ideas on what education might look like for the next couple of years that seem to rationally account for the uncertainty that we have about the pandemic but continue to find ways to actually do the important work of education?

Harris: There has been a model of how to adjust to this kind of reality for years, and that’s what community colleges have done. They have a mix of online classes and in-person classes. Students typically don’t live on campus. It was kind of this hybrid model already. A lot of community colleges were able to adjust very quickly when America kind of came to the collective realization that oh, this is a serious thing.

Wells: This just seems like a disaster. Am I wrong?

Harris: No, I don’t think so. There have been a lot of colleges that have said, “We’re going to get our students to sign pledges that say, ‘For this next six months, you’re going to go to school, you’re going to get this education, and you’re just going to accept some of these new restrictions that we’ve put in place for you. We would like you guys not to have parties.’” And without an enforcement mechanism there, I don’t see how that actually works. Colleges had a difficult time stopping underground parties before the pandemic.

Hamblin: Our colleague Derek Thompson has laid out this idea for me before that college is giving people three things, almost in equal parts. A third of it is what you learn. A third of it is your social network that you build. And the last third is what’s on your CV, that you have a degree that helps you get a job. Should more colleges be focusing just on that first third?

Harris: The answer is ... probably. There are a lot of things that colleges have to reconsider about what their fundamental purpose is. And if the purpose is to educate students, then maybe there should be a reconsideration of how that education is being delivered.

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