April 28, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes

You’ve heard it: If universities can go online, shouldn’t classes be virtual in the first place? Why pay $50,000 a year or more for an educational streaming service? I’m not a public health expert, but as a political economist I’d say that the university system will take quite a bit of killing. 

Universities, at least the “top” universities, may not just survive, but thrive. Yes, in the short run, there is considerable uncertainty. But this crisis, whether you see it as a crisis of public health or of bad policy, will not last forever.

The Problem

Universities will have to change, of course. I myself wrote about the utility of the “Virtual Section” a few years back. And even before the CV19 panic, many second-tier institutions have had to reduce costs, increase graduation rates, and compete for a shrinking pool of new applicants. Many have substituted away from tenure-line faculty toward harried temporary instructors, who may work at several institutions and may have less time for students. If “education” is just widgets, then online education appears to increase scale and cut cost.

Some schools should close; many have, and more will soon. But most closures in the past 3 years were new, for-profit colleges that were shaky to begin with. The thing to remember is that seemingly opposite trends can all happen at once. Folks listen to MP3s for their music now, but after the epidemic they will once again pay to go to concerts and symphonies. 

Video streaming services are busy, but theaters and Broadway shows will be back in a year. Online classes will expand education and make it more widely available. But the shared, in-person experience will always have a place in education. The question is: what is that place? How will our evolving view of education “delivery” be combined with other things that make “going to college” so attractive?.

Online vs On Campus

Online courses are movies that went straight to cable. People will still pay for big movies, a shared experience, sitting together all watching the same thing at the same time. Yes, universities must move toward systems that are hybrid, and modular, versions of flipped classrooms and other kinds of pre-recorded material. But sharing a learning experience in a group, and then discussing it, is an experience many students will still seek out, and support. Even in a classroom setting, the problem of student attention was getting worse; for online classes, banning laptops is impossible. 

There may be software solutions, but we are far from solving that problem. And the current generation of faculty is still used to eye contact, and using a whiteboard. Teaching technology has not been the focus of most graduate preparation. At this point, we can’t move classes online, without years of additional work.

But classes are less than half the story. It’s a cliché that some students come to college for the parties, and then stay for the classes, but to see college only as a course delivery system is risible. There are sources of values—both benefits and sensibilities—that will make college matter more than ever as the outside world fragments. I propose that representing these values is a metonymy—in my case, four buildings—standing in for the category. (I should note that this argument has been made by others, including Michael Gibson of the Theil Foundation, but as a critique rather than a defense.).

 Building 1. The Clock Tower

The central tower peals out the time; coordination is better than anarchy. But saying, “Education will occur on Tuesdays and Thursdays between the hours of 11:10 and 12:25, and at no other time,” is artificial. People should learn, think, and discuss things on their own schedules. The Procrustean clock tower is an anachronism.

 Except….wait a minute. Some experiences are more intense, more vivid, and more memorable for being shared. A Broadway show, or even a movie, has an exact starting and ending time. For a group of friends to have dinner, they must agree on a time for the reservation. Yes, suppressing the tower’s tyranny illustrates the attraction of asynchronous instruction, but if we also want shared experience we’ll need schedules. The clock tower stays.

 2. The Stadium

Many faculty lament the importance of college athletics. But humans are tribal; people like belonging. Connecting intellectual and team identities bundles a range of shared connections, and it’s no accident that successful athletic programs can make the difference between survival and stagnation.

As we see in the review by Sperber (2004), college sports are a mixed bag in terms of the contribution to education, narrowly defined. But thinking of “education, narrowly defined” is to precisely to misunderstand why people love college. Faculty might want to pretend students choose a college based on what they expect in the classroom, and some do; but many students were recruited 10 years earlier, on Saturday afternoons in the fall, watching football with their parents.

 3. The Student Union

To an outsider, “selective” organizations in colleges just perpetuate privilege. That view is not altogether wrong, but it’s strikingly incomplete. Organizations are sorting mechanisms, among the most efficient and least-cost (to members) dating, internship, and leadership development services available. People of similar interests, class, and education level share a relaxed space where everyone knows they belong. Every club has leadership and service positions. These connections are much deeper, and more valuable, than the dismissive “social life” description they are given.

Certainly there are dark sides to exclusivity, and to the sexual abuse found on many campuses. But groups provide invaluable opportunities for connections, experimentation, and growing up. Having to deal with people you didn’t choose as friends, and navigating relationships with people you want to know as more than friends, is part of maturity. Outsiders can “buy” online dating a la carte, of course. But choosing affiliations and relations in a fluid environment helps teach you who you are going to be.

 4. The Admissions Office

Even those who question the overall value of a college education, such as Bryan Caplan, concede that the “signal” of graduating from an elite college is valuable. The graduate combines intellect, compliance to rules, the ability to complete tasks, and at least the rudiments of time management skills. Leading into the college experience, the admissions process is itself a signal that the graduate was examined closely in complicated, multi-dimensional competition. At an elite college, that means that just “getting in” meant that the matriculant was selected over thousands of other well-qualified applicants. For better or worse, admission to an elite college may mean as much as what the student does once he or she arrives.

A “college” has four community buildings, located close together and run by the same organization. I understand; faculty readers are wringing their hands: “What about my classroom?! Isn’t that the heart of the college?” The answer is yes, once students arrive, but that’s also something that virtual classes can best (though not perfectly) approximate. 

Attracting students to a bricks-and-mortar campus requires a mix, or bundle, of services that cannot be easily replicated, even piecemeal, and which nowhere are available as a bundle with such convenience. 

Further, as Scott Carlson pointed out, one disturbing aspect of the “college as signal” argument is the difficulty young people have adjusting to growing up on their own in an increasingly complex world. That is not a problem that colleges created, but a concentrated on-campus experience is still the solution.

At their best—and the institutions that survive will have to have a best-level experience—the experience of college students is multiplicative and synergistic: a college is not the sum of the four buildings, but their product. 

An online degree, an online dating service, a professional sports team in your city, and a proficiency certificate from Microsoft are not a la carte alternatives to a college degree. It is quite possible that the result will be positive, overall, with far more efficient, inexpensive online alternatives operating alongside more streamlined and well-thought-out in person experiences on the college campuses that remain.

Michael Munger

Michael Munger

Michael Munger is a Professor of Political Science, Economics, and Public Policy at Duke University and Senior Fellow of the American Institute for Economic Research.

His degrees are from Davidson College, Washingon University in St. Louis, and Washington University.

Munger’s research interests include regulation, political institutions, and political economy.

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