In a typical year, the month of May would be defined by high school seniors proudly announcing their commitments to colleges and universities that will define the next two or four years of their lives. As part of that experience, higher education institutions would be planning and hosting a number of on-campus events aimed at attracting a diverse incoming class of students, all of whom would be eager to turn to the next chapter of their young adult lives.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, none of these on-campus events are occurring. Instead, high school seniors are sitting at home through virtual campus tours and difficult conversations about financing their education; university students are sitting in front of their computers receiving an online education having already paid full-price; whilst colleges and universities are bracing for a significant financial crisis that, for some, threatens to jeopardize their very existence. Together, the added stress and difficulty of navigating this pandemic has forced governments, institutions, and families to reassess their relationships with one another in preparation for a new normal.
But as opposed to viewing this crisis as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be more accurate to say that this crisis was years in the making. Now, it has simply been revealed in the midst of a global health and economic catastrophe. Even before the pandemic, colleges and universities were showing signs of instability. Tuition had risen 25% in the last ten years alone; meanwhile, the student loan burden skyrocketed to total $1.6 trillion in 2019, with more growth projected. Simply put, the financial crisis that is occurring with higher education–for families and for institutions themselves– was always a bubble waiting for the right moment to burst.
Even more important than the identification of the crisis, however, is the response that colleges and universities will need to devise as they navigate great uncertainty with this pandemic. In doing so, they must answer questions about the relationship between affordability, quality of education, and sustainability. Not only must colleges and universities now consider how to respond to financial shortfalls during this pandemic, they must also consider how much they are willing to sacrifice as a response in terms of finances, quality of education, and staffing.
With enrollment projected to decrease by around 15% this fall semester in the US, there is increasing pressure for colleges and universities to strike a balance between financial feasibility for the institutions’ operations and incentivizing students to enroll. This, however, is somewhat of a false choice. Institutions in higher education should not be forced to choose between financial stability and student enrollment. Likewise, students, employees, and faculty should not be forced to choose between personal finances and quality of education.
This time of uncertainty has revealed some systematic challenges in higher education, but it also presents a rare opportunity to make radical changes to the system that could redefine the way we understand it. Governments should begin to recognize the importance of investing in higher education to decrease the financial burden placed on families and expand opportunities to disadvantaged communities; colleges and universities should consider sustainable and effective ways to support their staff and students, even when there isn’t a crisis; and families should begin to consider the value of various paths toward higher education, including community college, online education, and gap years.
We have few concrete answers to these questions at this moment due to the ever-changing nature of the pandemic. Consequently, families and institutions alike are navigating through this crisis in their own ways. It is important to keep in mind that the choices we make will define a generation. As we continue to journey through this unprecedented moment in time, we must find sustainable ways to support higher education and build a stronger relationship between governments, institutions, and families.
Todd Lu is a high school senior and a Next Generation Politics contributor for International News and Economics. Todd’s passion for storytelling and fostering a global perspective on critical issues of our time is at the centre of his written work, theatre performances, and leadership of his school’s ambassadors programme for international and exchange students. Todd has committed to attend the University of Southern California this fall, majoring in Communication.