Public Universities

The nation’s sudden shift to remote teaching that started in March 2020 has called into question foundational assumptions about teaching and learning—and indeed the entire collegiate model. Now, with every residential college facing significant revenue loss, the traditional model is on the verge of breaking.

In a sense, the pandemic is only the latest “perfect storm” to hit American universities. Whether community colleges, flagship public universities, private colleges, or for-profit conglomerates, colleges and universities have long been highly conflicted institutions. Collectively, these postsecondary schools make up the backbone of a social framework that is at once a ladder for economic upward mobility, a pipeline for trained workers for industry, a brain trust for the next generation of breakthroughs in technology and medicine, an arbiter of culture, sports, and entertainment, a boot camp for responsible citizenship, and a cauldron of activism on behalf of social justice for the marginalized. At least, that is view from within the academy!

From the outside it’s a different picture: public trust in universities appears to be at an all-time low. And this dim view coincides with other pressing concerns: the number of college-age Americans has declined, states have reduced funding for public educational institutions, and graduates are burdened with mounting student debt.

It is unlikely there will be another opportunity as ripe for fixing what ails higher education institutions in the United States as the present crisis. Instead of trying to adjust a 200-year-old model to current circumstances, we should invent a completely new model that is in the best interests of society and the people in it.

We need to start by clarifying the purposes of higher education for today’s society, and then begin creating models that achieve those goals in the most efficient and effective way possible.

To reimagine higher education in the post-pandemic world, we have to accept a few givens. One of them is that postsecondary education starts after 12 years of foundational education. Is 12 years the right amount of time? This time frame is so entrenched in society that we simply have no choice but to accept it. We must also accept and adjust to the reality that until the fundamental problem of disparities in school funding and family support is mitigated, there will continue to be significant variability in college preparation among high school graduates.

That said, here are some of the most important issues facing policymakers and higher education leaders in the postpandemic era, and an outline of the opportunities and challenges for reform.

Purpose and organization: Training for a career and preparing for responsible citizenship are the twin purposes of education. Today’s technologically advanced society requires higher education—defined as at least two years at the postsecondary level—even for middle-skills jobs. But postsecondary vocational and professional education—with the purpose of skills acquisition—is often seen as incompatible with a more holistic college track including the liberal arts.

I believe this dichotomy is not helpful to society, and we need a more integrated view. Postsecondary education should be envisioned as a dynamic highway with multiple on- and off-ramps, seamlessly integrating the world of work during the breaks in the journey, and permitting students to acquire progressively higher skills and citizenship acumen (in particular the ability to analyze and take positions on complex sociopolitical issues) while on the highway segments. This approach calls for integration between what are currently organized as separate sectors: vocational/technical schools, community colleges, and four-year colleges. One of the hallmarks of the American education system is its flexibility: individuals with a late-blooming talent, or those desiring a mid-life career change, can achieve their goals. To use an analogy, a successful car dealership today is a conglomerate of different brands that serve every market segment. Higher education must integrate similarly, allowing those seeking credentials to move seamlessly across segments as their goals and desires change. The forced migration to remote teaching imposed on all segments due to the pandemic makes this more possible now than ever before.

Hybrid modality: In February 2020, the universe of postsecondary education consisted mostly of two modes: classes primarily conducted in-person on a physical campus, and online instruction with little face-to-face contact. Practitioners using the former held a firm belief that online classes were inherently inferior to in-person classes. But by the end of March, all institutions had switched primarily to virtual teaching, which they expect to do at least through spring 2021. Almost no school is charging less tuition as a result of the switch.

Not surprisingly, the conversation has shifted to focus on how to make virtual classes just as effective and fulfilling as in-person classes. Colleges are now competing with one another to be more creative in virtual and hybrid teaching and student engagement. And colleges are beginning to collaborate—sharing courses, facilities, and such. In the same way that many businesses are discovering that their productivity does not depend on all employees congregating daily in tall, expensive downtown buildings, so universities are learning new lessons about what really matters. Students are adjusting to the virtual or hybrid mode and finding savings and new flexibility.

It is fair to say that online classes have irreversibly infiltrated the body academic and will play an increasingly important role in the postpandemic world as workers access lifelong learning through virtual and hybrid learning. At my university, now freed from the physical campus and the limitations it places on the types of students we are able to serve, we have realized that we no longer dread the huge demographic decline in 18-year-olds faced by the northeastern region of the United States.

Cost and relief: The rate of growth of the cost of college over the past 50 years has far exceeded the rate of cost increase in every other segment of society—including housing, health care, and transportation—and this fact has escalated student debt to the point of collapse. Although the American political psyche is loath to impose a lot of regulatory controls, there is increasing sentiment in favor of providing free college, debt-free college, or debt forgiveness.

I think what makes most sense is a combination of multiple controls and incentives. One is strict regulation of for-profit institutions to curb predatory practices. Another might be placing caps on noninstructional spending at all types of institutions (enforced through regional accreditation). What I have in mind is that administrative costs and subsidies from tuition dollars for research operations, athletics, recreational, and outreach activities, as a percentage of instructional expenditures would be capped. In order to preserve the benefits of research, state and federal funding for research must be correspondingly increased. We could also consider an a la carte tuition model based on what amenities and services a student chooses to utilize. In addition, there could be a cap on student borrowing tied to the field of specialization and expected lifetime earning, accompanied by a well-designed loan-forgiveness program for people whose degrees meet lower-paying societal needs. That none of this will come easy is a vast understatement.

Selectivity and social justice: It is a sad commentary on society that the zip code of a child’s birth is the strongest indicator of college attendance and completion, and eventual financial success. The pandemic has made it difficult to administer standardized admissions tests nationally and internationally. Accordingly, most selective institutions have made admissions applications either test-optional or test-not-required. Colleges should take full advantage of this forced large-scale experiment to take a critical look at their admissions policies to focus more on the ability and motivation of applicants than on the outcomes of their relative privilege in society.

The pandemic, with all of higher education switching mostly to online format, has brought into sharper focus the disadvantages experienced by low-income students. The basic assumption that all students have access to quiet study space, adequate hardware and software, and necessary connectivity doesn’t hold true. Enlightened institutions are beginning to address these economic disparities by allowing lower-income students to live, work, and study on campus. This awareness should be carried forward into the post-pandemic period, for example by enabling all students to avail themselves of at least two years of residential education regardless of family income.

The pandemic has turned upside down every segment of society in every part of the country. Just as normalizing mail-in voting as a public health precaution has led to unprecedented levels of participation in the electoral process, traditional higher education institutions have had to embrace virtual teaching as the primary mode of instruction, diffusing if not obliterating the boundary separating nontraditional institutions. It is no longer possible, without being hypocritical, to assert that one educational modality is vastly superior to the other. This leveling of the field opens up the opportunity to address many of the ills of postsecondary education, particularly in the public sector. It is time for the nation and states to commission high-level blue-ribbon panels to study needed changes, and to build consensus to address the challenges and opportunities society and the education system now face.

Your participation enriches the conversation

Respond to the ideas raised in this essay by writing to [email protected]. And read what others are saying in our lively Forum section.

Cite this Article

Subbaswamy, Kumble R. “Public Universities.” Issues in Science and Technology ().