Updated at 12:40 p.m. ET on August 28, 2020.
The COVID-19 disaster has come to college with startling speed. Within a week of reopening, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had reported four clusters of five or more cases in two residence halls, a private apartment complex housing some students, and a fraternity, forcing the school to frantically backtrack on its plans. Michigan State was not far behind, suspending in-person classes in the face of COVID-19 concerns.*
This crisis was not only predictable; it was predicted. And yet even now, many other public universities across the country appear to be holding to the same plans, praying that the plague of COVID-19 will pass them over. Why have so many colleges, despite all the warnings, chosen to reopen anyway? To understand how they worked themselves into this impossible situation, one must look to the web of institutional and economic conditions that were slowly ruining American universities before the pandemic.
The first issue is an economic concept: Baumol’s cost disease. In an economy where productivity is increasing because of new technologies, the financial cost of providing services that cannot be made more efficient rises rapidly. The best professors can teach only so many students at once, much like the best live-show jazz musician can play only one saxophone to one audience at a time. If universities want to teach more students, they need more instructors, which drives up costs. Online courses and other self-directed learning options are not solutions. With online classes, learning outcomes often disappoint, and virtual instruction runs counter to the most important asset at a major university: personal interaction with highly qualified experts. Consequently, universities need more teachers and the cost of providing an education rises higher and higher.