What Will College Look Like in the Fall (and Beyond)? (Ep. 418)
Three university presidents try to answer our listeners’ questions. The result? Not much pomp and a whole lot of circumstance.
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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We are launching a new spinoff podcast called No Stupid Questions. I think you might like it. Angela Duckworth and I feed each other questions about any- and everything — including which long-standing social conventions may be obliterated by Covid-19:
Angela DUCKWORTH: When you extend your hand, first of all, it’s an opportunity for reciprocity.
Stephen J. DUBNER: What about a karate chop to their hand to knock it down?
DUCKWORTH: We’re not doing that. I’m going to go with the salute.
Subscribe now to No Stupid Questions wherever you get your podcasts.
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Matthew JAEKEL: Hello Freakonomics Radio, my name is Matt.
Alyssa WU: My name is Alyssa.
Sydney AHMED: Sydney Ahmed.
Dylan EIGER: Dylan Eiger.
Steven XU: Hi, Stephen. It’s also Steven.
We recently asked to hear from college students and faculty.
Jen FOX: I’m an M.I.T. student living in Boston, Massachusetts.
AHMED: I’m a graduating senior at the University of Southern California.
Angela LEE: Yale College.
Joshua FLEMING: Pasadena City College.
EIGER: I am a current M.D./Ph.D. student at Duke University.
Christopher NYGREN: I am recently promoted to the rank of associate professor with tenure. Woohoo!
XU: I’m going to be a rising junior at Bowdoin College in the fall, if we have a fall.
We asked you to send us your questions about college in the age of Covid-19. And you had a lot of questions.
AHMED: If professors are switching between remote teaching and in-person classes, are students getting the education they paid for?
Darren HALL: Given that international students usually pay full tuition, how are universities going to cope with that financial stress?
Max KRUPNICK: Should universities consider reducing tuition to incentivize students to take online classes instead of a gap semester?
There were a lot of questions about the future of college generally:
Colette SHAW: I know many small colleges are already cash-strapped. Do you think Covid could signal the end for small colleges in America?
Emily AIKEN: How might we take this as an opportunity to rebuild an educational system that is equitable instead of making repairs to one that is designed for a specific type of student to succeed?
Today on Freakonomics Radio, three college presidents try to answer these questions, even as the only thing they can be certain of is how much uncertainty they’re facing.
Robert BROWN: It’s a very interesting question.
Sylvia BURWELL: Bathrooms are a real issue.
Michael CROW: That’s weird. I mean, that’s psychologically weird.
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DUBNER: What have your days been like lately since Covid visited our shores?
BROWN: Since we shuttered the physical presence of our campus, I have been glued to a chair, which I’m sitting in now, normally staring at a Zoom screen, which is frighteningly tiring to do.
That is Robert Brown.
BROWN: I’m the president of Boston University.
Boston University is one of the larger private research universities in the U.S., with just over 35,000 students, roughly 50-50 undergraduate and graduate students. It’s essentially a small city — with all the density and interaction that make cities, and universities, so attractive in normal times. But these are not normal times.
BROWN: No, no. Especially a major research university and a university that thrives on the residential academic community. Those two ingredients, which are essential to who we are, are not pandemic-proof.
College executives everywhere — just like executives at all institutions and firms, public and private — have spent the past couple months trying to wrap their minds around the new Covid-19 reality and come up with plans to adapt. I heard about one college president who had 46 different plans, depending on how the pandemic played out. Robert Brown didn’t have 46 plans, but he did have several. One of them called for delaying the start of B.U.’s academic year until early 2021.
BROWN: I think I was the first person to say that it was potentially possible we wouldn’t operate in the fall. And I have never gotten that much press in my life.
DUBNER: Did you like that press, or not so much?
BROWN: Well, we had to walk back headlines. Because there were headlines out there — you know how the business works — that went all the way to “B.U. not open in the fall.”
DUBNER: And this, we should say, is happening when incoming freshmen are still deciding where to go, right?
BROWN: Yeah, it was fun. That was fun.
The California state university system just announced they won’t physically open in the fall, that all classes will be online. But as of this recording, Boston University is planning to open in the fall, as are many universities — well, emphasis on the “planning” to open. The job now is to figure out exactly what opening might look like.
BROWN: So one of the questions I think that institutions are struggling with, or making plans around, is what their flexibility in their offering models are going to be in the fall.
“Offering models” meaning how they deliver instruction.
BROWN: So one of the things we’ve already announced for 40 of our graduate professional programs is that in the fall, they will be offered in a concurrent form. They’ll be offered in-person and, simultaneously, in a remote-learning environment.
B.U., like most schools, already converted to remote learning for the second half of the spring semester.
BROWN: So now why would you do that?
He means: why would they offer all instruction both in-person and remotely?
BROWN: It’s a lot of logistics. It’s complicated for the faculty. There’s a lot of other support we have to put in place.
But there are also a lot of reasons why this flexibility may be necessary. There are a variety of different cohorts in any college population, each with different potential concerns and barriers.
BROWN: One are international students who decide they don’t want to come back.
Roughly one in four students at B.U. is an international student.
BROWN: International students who cannot get back because of an airline or a visa. They could be domestic students who don’t want to come to Boston right then. And they could be students that we have asked to quarantine or isolate. And so everything we’re doing is trying to create an environment that has the flexibility from the academic environment that you can move seamlessly as possible between the in-person residential and a remote environment.
So let’s take an international student that’s a sophomore. The student says, “I don’t feel comfortable coming to Boston in the fall, but I don’t want to give up my Boston University degree. And I’d like to keep making progress.” They could register with us and be part of the classes as they have been in the last six weeks, remotely. And then come back when they’re ready to come back.
CROW: Well, the way we’re approaching it is that we now have these three teaching and learning modalities.
That is Michael Crow.
CROW: I’m president of Arizona State University.
Arizona State is also a large research institution — much larger than Boston University — and it’s a public university, not private. It offers three primary modes of enrollment.
CROW: So we have A.S.U. full-immersion, on-campus, technology-enhanced.
That is basically the traditional, on-campus model.
CROW: We have A.S.U. full-immersion, synchronous, technology-enhanced.
“Full-immersion synchronous” meaning, essentially, live video instruction. What most people are calling “remote” instruction.
CROW: And A.S.U. digital immersion, online, technology-enhanced.
Whereas “online” or “asynchronous” instruction means recorded lectures and lessons that students can watch on their own schedule.
CROW: What that means then is when we figure out exactly what the health and safety instructions are, and we figure out exactly where we’re going, and we’re planning right now to be full-immersion for the fall semester.
DUBNER: Meaning you will have a full, in-person cohort of students, yes?
CROW: Well, we don’t know how that will work out. But we’re approaching it from the perspective that we need to be able to be responsive to the student in whatever modality we have to operate under. Right now, we have many different scenarios. But the most important thing is that we have tools and we have assets so that learning doesn’t have to be interrupted. If you’re 17 or 18 years old and you’re just going to college, imagine this level of disruption. You don’t even know what it is. You don’t even know what it means. What we’re interested in doing is making certain that we are available, ready, and engaging with learners no matter what the circumstances are. And we know how to do that.
The reason A.S.U. knows how to do that is because Crow has for years advocated using technology not only to make education more flexible, but more accessible, especially to students from low-income families. This technology push has not gone unnoticed, or unrewarded: Arizona State has been named Most Innovative School by U.S. News and World Report for the past six years; it’s also been named one of the most sustainable universities in the world. And its student population has exploded.
CROW: We have about 75,000 students in the two full-immersion modalities and about 65,000 students in the digital-immersion modality.
DUBNER: So let’s say a college president who has invested very little money or thought in remote learning until Covid, the answer from you might be, “Well, you should have invested a lot of money and thought in doing it because there’s obviously a big R.O.I. in getting a head start,” yes?
CROW: Yes. I mean, the answer is yes. But I mean, it would be a little bit like a moment my dad used to have with me, when something would happen and he’d say, “Do I have your attention now?”
DUBNER: So what do you know from years past about remote learning, online learning, that other schools are about to learn?
CROW: What we know is that it is very empowering once you accept it. So it’s sort of like facing the fact that the book is not the only technology for universities to be successful around. And that once you accept that there’s other things beyond the book, it’s a lot easier.
DUBNER: If I’ve been accepted as a freshman at A.S.U. for an on-campus, fully immersive, aided-by-technology experience and I decide, or maybe my parents decide — maybe I’ve got an underlying health condition, or maybe I’m coming from across the country or across the world — that no, I can’t do that, so I switch. Can I switch to a fully online enrollment instead? How does that work? And what happens to the costs as well?
CROW: So it is most likely that we will operate in all three modalities at the same time for exactly the reasons that you have articulated. So let’s say you’re fully admitted, but travel from your country is delayed, or you’re fully admitted and you’re immunocompromised, and Mom’s not very interested in you coming out from New Jersey all the way to Arizona. So in the case of those students, then you’ll be able to be fully immersed at A.S.U. through our synchronous technology. Let’s say that doesn’t work for you. Well, then we have our asynchronous online optionality. The costs for online are different than the costs for immersion. The costs for on-campus immersion and synchronous immersion are— right now, we’ve not worked that all out. They’re very similar because our instructional costs are the same and our interaction costs are the same, but some of the on-campus costs would not be the same. So we’d probably have three different cost bases.
DUBNER: So what does that start to do to your bottom line? Assuming, let’s say, some significant fraction, 20 to 50 percent of the people, opt for a different modality that you can charge less for. How does that start to work for you?
CROW: It’s complicated, very complicated. Our financial numbers are guesses right now.
According to one recent survey, roughly one in six students who made a tuition deposit no longer plans to attend a four-year college full-time. They’re thinking about a gap year or some other option. This was a pretty common theme among our listeners.
Eden LIU: Hi, Stephen. I am a first-year student at Wellesley College, but I’ve been back at home in Beijing, China, since March. So to be completely honest, I have not been adjusting well to remote learning. So as soon as there was talk of another semester online, I was looking for alternatives.
SHAW: I’m a rising junior studying geosciences at Eckerd College, which is a small liberal arts school in Florida. Like many other private schools, it is somewhat expensive. If the college chose, or was forced, to conduct fall semester exclusively online, I know many of my peers would take a semester off or take community college courses for a semester, rather than pay tens of thousands of dollars for online school.
Robert WALATKA: I’m currently unemployed, used to work in consulting, but left my job about two weeks ago, not related to coronavirus, but I just wanted to break off before I start graduate school at the University of Chicago. And I’m becoming increasingly concerned that that program will be online. And I think removing the human element of that, of us being in a room together with my classmates, with the professor, is really going to be difficult and a big disadvantage if it comes to that. And I have to ask myself: do I really want to start this program during this time?
I asked Michael Crow what happens to A.S.U.’s finances if a significant chunk of students opt for a gap year or deferral.
CROW: I don’t know how many kids want to do a gap year in their basement. We’re thinking that if, for whatever reason, the student feels uncomfortable or the family feels uncomfortable, that we’re going to say, “Well, here are other options that we have for you to continue learning.”
DUBNER: And what about the loss of international students? What are you expecting there?
CROW: Well, we’re the number one or two public university for international students in the U.S. And so we could lose anywhere from hundreds to thousands of international students. But at the same time, we’re also looking to make certain that if a student can’t start the fall semester, they start in sync and then they come in the spring.
DUBNER: And I assume most international students pay full-fare, yes?
CROW: Most international students actually at all American universities pay premium tuition.
DUBNER: Okay. So what is premium at A.S.U. for an international student?
CROW: Low 30s.
DUBNER: Okay. And what about out-of-state tuition?
CROW: Out-of-state tuition is less, but it’s more than double our in-state tuition. We have lots of students from everywhere, all 50 states. So there, the same thing. It’s too early to tell what mobility will be like. It’s too early to tell what family psychology will be like. What we do know is that when we said last week that we were planning to be fully immersive on campus for the fall, meaning we didn’t say for certain. We just said that’s our plan. We had 1,000 students finalize their deposits in one day. What that tells us is that people want to go to college. They want their life to move forward, if at all possible.
Of course college students want their lives to move forward; we all want that. But everything depends on the virus, and the efforts to fight it. And that, in turn, will greatly influence the future of colleges and universities, many of which were under severe financial strain before Covid-19. But the pandemic accentuates a basic and unavoidable fact of the university industry:
BURWELL: Most universities are highly tuition- and fee-dependent. So that impacts the finances pretty dramatically.
That is Sylvia Burwell; she is president of American University, in Washington, D.C.
BURWELL: Right now, the estimates in higher education is that there could be up to about 20 percent in terms of enrollment drop. Universities will have to work to figure out how they can manage through that kind of impact.
American University is a private school, much smaller than Boston University, but not tiny: it’s got about 8,000 undergraduates and another 6,000 grad students. I happen to have a child who just finished his freshman year at American — the last couple months remotely, from home in New York. But that’s not why I wanted to include Sylvia Burwell in this look at what happens to colleges this fall. I wanted to include her because, unlike many college presidents, she has spent most of her career outside of academia.
BURWELL: That’s correct. I was the secretary of Health and Human Services under President Obama, and I was also his director of the Office of Management and Budget.
So when Burwell looks at a college campus, she sees it less as a world apart from society and more like an extension, with all the attendant inequities.
BURWELL: So I think the question of first-generation students and students who are socioeconomically more challenged is a broader question in our society right now. And that is the disparities that have been laid bare by Covid-19. And those disparities are both economic, and those are also health disparities, which existed before, and Covid-19 exacerbates and bears down upon. And in terms of meeting the needs, the federal government does a small portion and the rest of the needs are met by the university.
I think there are going to be financial challenges that are going to be extremely difficult for those students. When you think about some of those students that are work-study students, one of the things that we tried to do was be able to continue for our students who were working, that as many as possible could telework, to make sure that we work with the federal government on how those monies are counted or not counted against their ability to get aid. I think there are many steps that we all need to take.
DUBNER: And what happens if I am— let’s say I’m an incoming freshman but my financial-aid offer was relatively small — $5,000, $10,000, let’s say. And now I write to you and say, “President Burwell, I appreciate the package that you put together. But one of my parents or both of my parents have lost a job and we’re simply not able to meet this.” What can you do in a case like that?
BURWELL: In a case like that, your financial circumstances have changed, and so you should let us know. We want to know, because we know that these are challenging and difficult times. We are going to be stretching in many ways to try and do everything we can for those who have changed financial circumstances.
DUBNER: Let’s talk about finances overall. I’ve seen where you said that American University lost about $27 million in revenue and increased expenses because of Covid-19, which is about five times as much as the university is being allocated under the CARES Act. So a $27 million tab. Can you just help us understand? Break that down. Where’s that money being spent?
BURWELL: So, the big majority of that money actually was spent on refunds to our students for their housing and dining. In terms of supporting the online learning, that actually took money and cost. We helped and supported our students who were not able to financially get home. If there were students like that, we helped with that.
CROW: Well, we have some scenarios with losses in the hundreds of millions, but we don’t know. We call these the 100-foot waves.
Michael Crow, again, from Arizona State University.
CROW: So the imagery that we put out — I sent this out to my board chair a few weeks ago — I sent a picture of a battleship in heavy seas, 40-foot waves. The entire front end of this battleship is under the wave. And I said, “This is us today, 40-foot waves and we’re doing okay. We’re fully functional, delivering our services.” And I said, “But there’s two worries I need to let you know about. One is there are now rogue 100-foot waves out there: A loss of international students, a loss of out-of-state student revenue, a decrease in the investment from the state legislature. There’s also a possible tsunami out there that none of us can understand or predict.” If any other significant disruption was to occur in the middle of this disruption, then the outcomes are very, very unknown at that point. So we are doing everything we can to enhance our technological capabilities so that we can continue to offer service regardless.
DUBNER: I understand A.S.U. is set to receive $63.5 million from the CARES Act, which is the most money of any university in the U.S. I understand the criteria are size of enrollment and share of Pell Grant recipients. Was there any other criteria that helped you get that big a portion?
CROW: We’re both very large and I think we have more Pell-eligible students than the entire Ivy League combined. So yes, we have a large number. Half of those dollars, give or take, are going to be to help students to stay students and to be successful. And the rest is going to go to helping the university to deliver the services. The first half is easy. The second half, we’ve got to think through what’s the best way to invest those resources.
DUBNER: Do you foresee any significant—
CROW: By the way, which I should say, that we’re very thankful for to the citizens of the country, that they— and to Congress for making those resources. Yes, thank you.
DUBNER: You’re welcome. So do you foresee any significant faculty or staff layoffs or furloughs?
CROW: Well, if you’re going to plan on being open like us, we don’t see furlough as a pathway. One option may be salary reductions, but furloughs will not be on that list, because we’ve got to deliver the service. So if we back away from delivering the services, then how’s that going to work?
DUBNER: Have you taken a cut yet, personally?
CROW: Not yet. We haven’t done anything until the end of the semester, and then we’re going to look at where we are. During the 2009 recession, I did take a substantial salary reduction, the largest of anyone within the institution, as should be the case. And if we do that again, we’ll follow it the same way.
DUBNER: So you’re a big school, and athletics are a relatively significant part of the operation there. I understand you’re in the neighborhood of $100 million in revenue a year.
CROW: One-fifteen to 120 these days.
DUBNER: And that produces a surplus or no?
CROW: We’re a break-even institution, which is hard enough to get to by itself.
DUBNER: So there are some schools where college football and basketball are really— that’s the golden goose. I could imagine this is going to be a very difficult year, probably cancellation of the football season, maybe basketball. Have you been talking to your peers at universities that depend on that, and what’s happening there?
CROW: Yeah, we’re in the Pac-12 conference with Stanford and Berkeley and Washington and U.S.C., schools like that. We’re looking at every possible route. It is a highly complicated thing. Most of our discretionary revenue for athletics is generated around football and men’s basketball. Perhaps the football season could be delayed. Maybe they play spring football. I know there’s all kinds of, “We could never do that. We could never do this.” And I’m like, “Well then, what do you recommend?”
Nearly all the decisions being considered by people like Michael Crow, Sylvia Burwell, and Robert Brown are a delicate balance between health and safety on the one hand, and on the other: dollars.
BROWN: About 53 percent of all of our revenues come from tuition and fees. Even as a large research university, because we’re just very large.
That’s Brown again, from Boston University. They were allocated just $15 million under the CARES Act. On paper, B.U. looks like it’s got a massive cushion — a $2.3 billion endowment.
BROWN: Although one of the things I would just throw out there is that people always use the size of an endowment as a metric of wealth. But as an endowment per student, we’re 160th on the list of private institutions.
DUBNER: So I know you recently announced that B.U. would meet the full financial need of all domestic students who qualify for financial aid. And that was planning to start this fall, 2020. Is that still going to happen?
BROWN: Oh, yes. It’s a very large increase in our need-based financial aid.
DUBNER: So talk about the economics of that. How do you make that happen — even when, I suspect, that you’re going to take a number of financial hits over the coming year or two?
BROWN: Well, the way we made that happen is two things. This one is we just ended a very successful capital campaign, and that increased substantially the amount of financial aid we had to give our undergraduate students. But on the other side, the university and our board of trustees, after a long discussion, decided to bring down the reserves. And over the next four years, it will be about a $60 million annual increase in financial aid.
DUBNER: Now, I know that you’ve been partnering with edX to launch an online M.B.A. for this coming fall.
BROWN: That’s right.
DUBNER: I’d be really curious to know what that was looking like before Covid and what it’s looking like now.
BROWN: It’s a very interesting question. And I would use the word you just used, that is an online program. It’s really for — I wouldn’t say alternative learners, but those that are going be taking the program asynchronously.
DUBNER: So how many were you expecting to be enrolled in the online M.B.A.? And how many do you have enrolled as of now?
BROWN: We were looking for, and this was a self-imposed cap, at the beginning, 100 students. And now I’m not going to say exactly how many enroll, but it’s going to be multiples of that. And that’s because of demand.
B.U.’s online M.B.A. tuition is $24,000 total. The tuition for the on-campus M.B.A. is roughly $56,000 per year, and it’s a two-year program. Room and board puts the total bill at roughly $80,000 per year. Granted, the on-campus program is more interactive and more personalized, but you could certainly see, especially now, how the online version may be a very appealing substitute. Will Covid 19 increase the appeal of online learning in the long run? For years, some top-tier universities like M.I.T. have been offering their courses online for free — but there hasn’t been all that much uptake. Will Covid-19 create a new equilibrium for online learning?
BROWN: It is a fascinating question, because it’s not— it’s hard to answer right now before we just figure out what the new equilibrium is. We’re in the middle of the largest perturbation that has hit higher education in memory. The online M.B.A. was created with not Covid in mind. Now there is a cadre of people who would have normally gone to residential programs who are considering that option. I mean, it’s going to take data over time because we still have a large number of applications for our fall M.B.A. program.
DUBNER: So will your in-person fall M.B.A. program be as full this year as it was last year?
BROWN: That’s hard to say. At this point it’s on track.
DUBNER: How many in-person M.B.A. students do you have in a typical year?
BROWN: Well, we actually have two different programs. We have what I call a traditional residential program and a part-time M.B.A. program. And the full-time M.B.A. program, it’s in the what I’d say, 100 to 125 range.
DUBNER: So theoretically, though, even if, let’s say half — which would be a huge number — of the people who would be enrolled in either the residential full-time program or the part-time, even if half of them decide to not come, and some of them or a bunch of other people are flooding the online M.B.A. — even though it’s only 24k in your pocket, versus 56, theoretically, you can make up in volume what you might lose in price. Yes?
DUBNER: I mean, theoretically, you could come out ahead. At least this portion of your massive, difficult conversion to post-pandemic university may be not so unsuccessful, right?
BROWN: That’s possible, right? The interesting thing is just a confluence of the fact that we’re launching the online M.B.A. program and then we had the pandemic. Right? I don’t want to pretend this was a strategy, but—
DUBNER: But it does make you look pretty smart, you have to say.
BROWN: Sometimes luck is a good part of looking smart.
DUBNER: I know in 2017 that B.U. acquired Wheelock College. Some estimates are calling for upward of 10 to 20 percent of U.S. colleges, mostly small, to go out of business soon. Not just Covid, but Covid accelerated that. So I’m curious, are you on the lookout for more acquisition? Will we see a lot more consolidation, et cetera?
BROWN: Well, I think that this is going to accelerate the issues. I’m associated with the higher-education group that’s going to advise the governor about reopening. And I think there are going to be discussions about economies of scale and people merging.
DUBNER: So basically, it sounds as though B.U. was and is in pretty good shape financially. But, pandemic. So what now? What’s your financial forecast for the next one to three years?
BROWN: I don’t want to sound Pollyanna-ish about this, but the most important thing is that we know the quality of the undergraduate program that we’ve had, and the value of that, the street value of that, hadn’t changed at all. In fact — this is conjecture, but I talked to enough parents — having your high-school senior sitting at home, taking the classes, convinces you that’s not where you want them next year.
DUBNER: “Quick, give me the checkbook! I have to write the deposit right now.”
BROWN: Where we are, is we’re ending what I would call deposit season. Which is where, in all of our programs, people profess they’re going to come. Our deposit season overall across all our programs is going well. Our numbers were better than last year in terms of deposits.
DUBNER: But I can’t imagine that there won’t be a little bit more deposit surrender this year than in a typical year, because—
BROWN: I totally believe that.
DUBNER: Yeah. So did you admit more knowing that, knowing that there were going to be some deposits that you guys are just going to essentially bank?
BROWN: It’s interesting. On the undergraduate side, we did try to increase the number of deposits relative to the class size we wanted, but not by huge amounts. Because one of the things that’s key to all of this is — as a residential campus — housing. There’s an upper bound where I can make the guarantees I want to make the parents about the housing situation for their children. Now we’re lucky we’re in an urban area. That gives us a little bit of flexibility because there are other ways to house people.
DUBNER: Yeah. So let’s talk about that. We’re talking in mid-May. Let’s talk about what you think your campus looks like in the fall. Where students will live, will all dorm rooms be singles now? How much do you have to expand into nontraditional dorm housing and so on?
BROWN: Let me start with what I think is the biggest topic for universities in the fall, and that’s testing. Because the answers to these questions really depend on testing protocol. If we can figure out an operating model where people feel safe, I think the students are going to come back. All of our numbers are trending very well. The question is delivering that in the fall.
Despite the numbers trending well, despite the enthusiasm and competence of people like Robert Brown and Sylvia Burwell and Michael Crow, it’s impossible to say right now what colleges and universities will be able to deliver in the fall.
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I asked Sylvia Burwell how running the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Management and Budget may have prepared her for leading a university through a pandemic. Her time at H.H.S. happened to coincide with the Ebola and Zika outbreaks.
BURWELL: I think my time at H.H.S. has been very specifically helpful in terms of understanding the basic framing of public health crises, that you approach this around the idea of prevention, detection, and response. American University was very early to send our students home. And a part of that was my understanding about the issues of density as well as what burden that would put on the D.C. healthcare system. The density that we have is like density of other places. We see that with nursing homes. We see that with cruise ships. When people are in shared spaces, this was a highly-transmissible disease.
DUBNER: Let’s assume that you do start on time and invite all students and faculty and staff back. What do you do to disperse that density? Do all dorms become singles? If so, where do all those extra people go, and so on?
BURWELL: So that is a part of what we’re working through. At American, we actually have three different task forces. Because the level of detail that one needs to consider these types of decisions is quite deep. And the task forces are focused on health and safety overall, in terms of how we will do things like testing, the contact tracing, the isolation, those types of issues. We’re focused on our workforce, because bringing the workforce back is an integral part, and related to our students and our faculty and research. And the third area is our student enrollment and students coming back. It’s a place that’s focused particularly on the students.
CROW: Housing is very complicated from a health and safety perspective.
That again is Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University.
CROW: We have 15,000, 16,000, plus or minus, residents living in our own facilities, in our residence halls. We still have 1,500 living in our residence halls because they have nowhere else to live. They live with us. Some schools asked them all to leave and we were like, “Well, where would they go?” So we’ve been taking care of them. For us, it’s all about health and safety, food delivery, spacing, and so forth. Again, we don’t know where we will be relative to the virus. But what we do know is that we have successfully managed our world thus far, and with the right technology and the right systems and the right behavior, you can make this work. So long as the macro level of the virus is moving in the right direction.
BURWELL: Bathrooms are a real issue. And bathrooms are going to be an issue for those in residence and for our classrooms. And how you think about how you have lectures with people social distancing. How many people can you have? I think people haven’t realized what this means, whether it’s in the beauty shop or in a classroom. When you have fewer people in something, either you’re going to do it for fewer people, or you’re going to do it more times.
DUBNER: If I were to ask you to put one of your government hats back on for a moment, when you talk about the relatively large fraction of students who may not attend in the fall, that sounds like a problem, obviously — a lot of young people without something to do, and a lot of parents who probably are ready for those kids to go do something — but it also sounds like an opportunity. And I’m thinking about things like AmeriCorps and other projects. If you had free rein with some government post to look at that relatively large pool of bright, motivated young people, is there anything that comes to mind that you could do with them or help them do?
BURWELL: I’m speaking in my old hat, say my Office of Management and Budget hat, where I was a member of what’s called the Troika — which is the Secretary of Treasury, the director of the O.M.B., and the head of the Council of Economic Advisers — that helps put together the modeling for economics, for the projections for the federal government. I would say, wearing that old hat, one of the challenges is it is going to probably be a contractionary period with regard to the economy. But having said that, I think there are important things that we know we need. And contact-tracing is a space where we know we have needs. And so thinking through, how are you going to do that contact tracing? And should you turn to universities, schools of public health? Should you turn to places like AmeriCorps? So thinking about the places where there will be unique demand and need is one thing that I think would be important to think about what young people can be doing.
DUBNER: Let’s imagine that there is a good app by fall that would enable pretty foolproof contact tracing. Would you make that a requirement? Would it be an opt-in situation? What’s your thinking on that?
BURWELL: So I actually think that contact tracing— I understand that it is actually about where people have been. The apps are very focused on that part of it. But contact tracing is actually a complex thing that— in terms of, you need to be trained. For Ebola, for instance, it wasn’t good enough to know if you were on the same plane with a person who had Ebola. We had different standards of what you should do if you were three seats away, six seats away, 12 seats away. So there are important questions that need to be asked as we think through. Do I think that apps and things may be able to help and supplement? Yes, but this is where the real detailed level of analysis needs to occur.
BROWN: I have to make it mandatory.
That, again, is Robert Brown, of Boston University, on whether contact-tracing should be mandatory.
BROWN: If people come back to me and say, “I can drive the incidents down,” the answer is absolutely yes. I would start with a kind of a thought experiment, right? If I had perfect testing, what would perfect testing look like? That for every person on my campus, the second that they — or the minute, or the hour — they acquired Covid, an app on their phone told everybody around them they had it, including me. If I had that world, I wouldn’t need much social distancing. Because social distancing is basically the long-term public-health standard for lack of knowledge about who has the disease.
DUBNER: What do you expect testing to look like for B.U. as of the start of your fall semester, on Sept. 1?
BROWN: I hope to have enough testing that — the question I can’t answer is how we will use it — that we will have literally thousands of tests to administer per day, that will be easily administered with no more than a 24-hour turnaround.
DUBNER: And what about the issue of the negative externality of young people potentially carrying the virus and they’re, so far at least, not very much at risk, but faculty and staff are in a different age cohort, typically. Have you thought about how to message to students that even though this is not really a big threat to them, that they are a big threat to others and how to get them to buy in?
BROWN: Well, I think that they’ve been living with this for the last 60 days, right? Because they’re at home with their parents. And they have exactly that same consequence with their relationship with their parents. I think that messaging is actually not the hardest part. The hardest part is there will be people in our faculty and staff, who either because of comorbidity or because of age, are at higher risk. Our protocols that we’re working on now is to try to find ways to give those faculty members who are uncomfortable in the classroom the tools and the setting in which they can fulfill their responsibilities. And their responsibilities are to teach their classes, but also to interact with their students. At some level this is trying to thread a needle. You want everyone to feel safe. But also, we are a sector of the economy in which people have responsibilities in their positions that they have to fulfill.
One concern a lot of our student listeners sent in was that their field of study cannot easily be converted to remote or online.
Anna FRENKEL: I’m going into my second year of my master’s in speech language pathology, which requires a lot of face-to-face clinical experience. We need clients to fulfill our clinical hours, as without them, we can’t graduate.
Ben LEVY: My name is Ben and I’m a grad student in the Department of Physics at U.N.C. Chapel Hill. I teach an experimental techniques class and, of course, that presented some pretty massive challenges for moving to online instruction because the class is lab-based. It’s pretty much all hands-on, collaborative work. And I’m planning to teach that again this summer and again in the fall. So we’re just going to see how it goes.
Kristin LYONS: I live in San Diego, California, and study to be a family nurse practitioner. I currently work full-time in an intensive care unit. Because of the pandemic, hospitals are limiting visitors, including volunteers and students. This spring semester, many students could not finish their clinical hours.
I asked Robert Brown how Boston University was planning to handle instruction and research that can’t be accomplished remotely.
BROWN: Well, it’s really interesting because when you think about that, the tip of the spear is research. Right? Where you go in to do bench research. And the bench research will probably come back in June timeframe in Massachusetts, my guess. We’re deep into the protocols for doing that. And that’ll be the first wave. And then we’ll start gathering data. The second wave that will come in mid-June and then in July are medical students. Medical students going back into clinics first. These will be upper-year medical students, and then the first-year medical students who will actually come back in the laboratories and classrooms, right? And we’re going to be able to bring these things back slowly and watch how our protocols work.
And if all goes well, which we’re hoping, that will give us a set of protocols for operating labs and studios and ensembles and other things in the fall when we bring back the rest of the university. But it’s going to be different. You’re going to have an ensemble practice in a much larger room than the little studios that we have in the School of Music, which would not give them good social distancing. But there— you’re absolutely right. There are majors and there are programs that just are not amenable long-term to these kinds of protocols.
CROW: Nothing works in academia across everything because there’s too much variability in how we learn.
Michael Crow again, from Arizona State. Math, for instance, is highly adaptable to online instruction.
CROW: But we have found other areas that are even more adaptable than math. So we now have a 12 course, 36-hour biology curriculum that we call the Bio Spine, where all of those courses are tied to high-school and middle-school learning. But they’re also completely, fully aware of everything that you’ve ever done in every previous course, going back and refreshing you and teaching you how you learned and then bringing you into it. We’ve been able to use these technologies to greatly enhance our learning outcomes in particular areas, which then frees up our energy in other areas and allows more traditional modalities to work more fruitfully, because the student wasn’t wiped out in Math 117 or they weren’t wiped out in Biology 203.
DUBNER: So what’s happening with your 2020 graduates and the job market, and what can the university do to help that?
CROW: Well, we have about 13,000 organizations that recruit the students from A.S.U. Recruitment intensity has— it’s not diminished to where you think. It’s still going on. People are still getting offers. Some offers are deferred. It turns out that nature takes its course and people are retiring and people are quitting, and new people are needed by the thousands. Overall, there’s a shortage of college graduates in the United States. So demand for college graduates exceeds supply.
That may be true, generally, but let’s not forget: the U.S. unemployment rate is currently creeping toward 20 percent, and according to the Institute of Student Employers, many firms plan to significantly reduce their hiring of recent graduates. Now, it may be even worse for older workers — recent college graduates tend to be cheaper. In any case, it’s hard to paint any kind of sunny picture at this moment about employment.
Still, you can’t blame Michael Crow for projecting optimism about his recent graduates: optimism is a big part of what a college president gets paid for. But in his case, it’s more than optimism. Crow has different ideas about what college should be. He believes that too many conversations about higher education for too many years have focused on the wrong thing: the furtherance of a relatively small class of children from elite families, looking to extend their elitism. He likes to talk about Arizona State as the New American University, part of what he calls the Fifth Wave of higher ed — and this wave is focused on using all available technologies to make all forms of education available to all segments of society.
CROW: I mean, it’s the case that about the same percentage of students from the lower quartile of family incomes are graduating from college in the United States as graduated 50 years ago. So there’s very little in the sense of innovative engagement. It’s still the case that the majority of people that start college in the United States, the majority of people that have ever had a Pell grant, never graduated. We don’t have a system that has innovated or adapted because it’s basically the same thing being offered in the same way over and over.
DUBNER: For students who start and don’t graduate, what are the primary impediments? What do the data tell you there?
CROW: The data tell us that the primary impediment is actually not financial. The primary impediment is lack of cultural readiness. I don’t mean ethnic-cultural models, but I mean, there’s little flexibility in the common college or university model. And not everybody is ready for that learning modality. And thereby they get off track. They are overwhelmed by the complexity. It’s not like high school. It’s not how they were taught before. And so many, many students don’t succeed.
DUBNER: So I think we’re at a high-water mark, or close to it now, in America in terms of people getting college degrees. But still, only about 45 percent of Americans will get either an associate or a bachelor’s degree. So as someone who wants to build the New American University with much more access and just basically more capacity, what are your thoughts on the other 55 percent of Americans, especially in an economy that’s had wage stagnation already, and now we’ve got the disappearance of 30 million jobs? And as reemployment happens, I’m guessing having no degree is going to put you even further behind.
CROW: So in the middle of Covid, we launched a thing called A.S.U. For You, which has curriculum for parents at home, and pathways to finish high school, and pathways for people to get some courses so that they can maybe position themselves for a better job or for a different job or for a different life or a different outcome. All of that is premised on something. It’s premised on the notion that we’re still operating in a society where we have some people whose lives are free and clear. They can do whatever they want. They can move into whole new areas. They can be creative. They can be dynamic. And other people are still advancing basically with their bodies as the way in which they’re doing the work. Meaning we don’t have equal opportunity for the true human potential to be realized across every person. What we’ve decided to do is to turn ourselves into a place where people that want to learn can connect to us, whether they’re a formal student or not. Universal learning needs to be where we’re headed. All learning institutions need to be able to connect to all learners.
I think every big thing like this changes the way that people think, changes the psychology. I mean, I have three grandchildren that live here that I can only look at across the yard because they don’t want to get the old folks like myself sick. That’s weird. I mean, that’s psychologically weird. I’m sure it has an impact on them also. Are there likely to be sociological impacts from this? Yes. Cultural impacts? Yes. I happen to be an optimist, though. So I happen to really believe that we’re still approaching the apex of the Enlightenment and the notion of rational thought. And we will adjust, and we will adapt, and we will come out of this stronger and better for it. And certainly we’ll come out of it better prepared than we were when this thing got going.
Joshua FLEMING: Hi, my name is Josh Fleming. I’m a professor of speech, communication, and theater at Pasadena City College. The longer we stay in this situation where we have to teach remotely and therefore learn remotely, the more savvy we’re going to become. I hope— I believe that what I’m doing online in my virtual classroom, when I take it back into the classroom, it’s just going to change how I communicate, and how I shape the information that my students are there for. I think it’s going to be awesome. And I think we’re going just to be vastly different on the other side of this in all different endeavors. How we conduct ourselves as a society will change. And the educational system will be a good indicator of how we will change.
There’s already been a lot of change — including, at Boston University and American University and Arizona State University, virtual commencement ceremonies and senior celebrations.
BROWN: Good morning, Class of 2020.
BURWELL: Candidates for degrees, parents, family, alumni and friends, on behalf of the American University community, welcome to our 139th commencement.
CROW: We’re here to really recognize the achievement of our students, the faculty and the staff that have supported them.
BROWN: I would’ve never imagined that I would be speaking to you at your senior breakfast via Zoom, with the campus empty and us dispersed around the world because of Covid-19.
BURWELL: While I’m disappointed that we cannot be together in Bender Arena, today is still a celebration of you.
BROWN: We must imagine this morning what 20,000 family and friends would look like in the stands at Nickerson Field. And what 5,000 graduates all in red robes will look like on the green field. And while you’re imagining, please throw in a bright sunny day with no rain.
CROW: I just want to say congratulations.
BURWELL: Congratulations to the Class of 2020. You are now officially alumni of American University. As we close today’s celebration, we leave you with the A.U. gospel choir and A.U. chamber singers, and their performance of, “The Best Is Yet to Come.”
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Daphne Chen. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, Matt Hickey, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, and Corinne Wallace; our intern is Isabel O’Brien. We had help this week from James Foster. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Robert Brown, president of Boston University.
- Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University.
- Sylvia Burwell, president of American University.
- “CARES Act Higher Education F.A.Q.” by Jackson Nell (EAB, 2020).
- “Leading Host Institutions,” (Institute of International Education, 2019).
- “Distribution of Federal Pell Grant Program Funds by Institution,” (U.S. Department of Education, 2018).