A few weeks into the Fall semester, a so-called natural experiment is being conducted on campuses across the country. This is not an experiment in epidemiology, but in self-governance. The question is: Are college students capable of self-governance? Are they capable of understanding that their actions affect not just themselves, but others throughout their communities, and act accordingly?
Some colleges decided over the summer that their students are incapable of such thinking and are conducting classes remotely. Others, like Eastern Carolina University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, initially decided to give their students the chance only to decide, after the semester was underway, that they were not. While plenty of colleges are still open for in-person classes this fall, only time will tell how many will remain open all the way through December and possibly even beyond.
What is a college to do in these times? The safest option, certainly one that makes the university safe from blame, is to close campus and conduct courses online. While this means that there will probably be less learning taking place (online education has come a long way, but so far has not supplanted in-person education, at least in the US), it also presumably means that the spread of Covid will be reduced. After all, students cannot attend Covid parties together if they’re not physically together, although their behavior away from campus is even more outside the administration’s control.
This is a tragedy. Obviously, it’s tragic whenever an education gets disrupted in such a way as to require entire campuses to move classes fully online. As John Hasnas of Georgetown University noted, a lost year of face-to-face instruction represents a significant portion of a student’s college years. But the disruption is also tragic for another reason: these students are not being given the opportunity to develop their own social rules that govern how to behave around each other. We have seen much emphasis in the news on students’ bad behavior as classes resume, but have none been modeling good behavior?
We contend that the proper course of action for colleges is to stay open for in-person instruction and housing in dorms. At the age of 18, college students are adults, capable of fighting in wars, picking the leader of the free world, and taking out student loans. While there are risks involved, the only way we will ever know if someone is capable of self-governance is to give them the opportunity to succeed. Unfortunately, the opportunity to succeed also comes with the opportunity to fail.
But success needs to be defined. Success in our minds does not mean that the spread of Covid comes to a halt. It also does not mean that every common area on campus is packed full of students. Instead, it means that students are taking the necessary precautions to limit the spread of Covid while being in the classroom and living on campus. This entails risk, to be sure, but it also requires responsibility. Even the most responsible among us have taken some risks in order to do our jobs, manage our households, and care for ourselves. We should not expect more of college students than we expect of ourselves. Just as our work and relationships are important, so are theirs. The situation to avoid is one where local health care providers are overwhelmed and classrooms are empty.
This semester, millions of college students are unfortunately going to face a test that is far more important than any exam, assignment, or project that they will ever get in any of their classes. This is the test of self-governance. Are they capable of governing themselves and acting responsibly? Or do they still require a guiding hand to tell them what to do? We believe college students deserve a chance to try.