American higher education has coped with major international emergencies before. During World War II, students left in droves to enlist—and then returned, after the war, eager to resume their formal schooling. (In 1947, nearly half of all admitted college students were veterans.) The United States is now suffering through another crisis of enormous magnitude. Congress has already passed $2 trillion in relief and is considering more. And yet colleges and universities from coast to coast appear bent on muddling through—that is, either by reopening their campus despite the dangers or by patching together enough online offerings to put on a facsimile of a fall semester.
This is a dismal choice. What colleges and the federal government should acknowledge is that, for many students, neither option makes sense. Given the nature and scale of the crisis facing the country, college students should be strongly urged to take a break from full-time study and devote the next year to national service, with online courses playing a cameo role.
The United States already has an infrastructure for supporting this: The AmeriCorps program, founded during the Clinton administration, offers stipends that can be applied toward tuition or directly to students. A massive emergency expansion of this program—into what might be called the CoronaCorps—would give the nation’s roughly 20 million public- and private-college students a meaningful year off campus and keep colleges and universities afloat without summoning large numbers of people back to tightly packed classrooms and dorms. CoronaCorps participants would still enroll in a course or two online, but their main focus should be community needs that no one is meeting.