As college administrators deliberate the risks of resuming classes in person, one thing is certain: The abrupt shift to remote teaching last spring has forced a reckoning over the future of higher education in the United States.
For one thing, many residential universities are now in the uncomfortable position of arguing that online learning is functionally equivalent to the in-person campus experience, says Mitchell Stevens, an associate professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE).
“The presumption that face-to-face instruction is always superior to digitally mediated forms is not going to be sustainable, regardless of when the pandemic ends,” he says on this episode of School’s In, hosted by GSE Dean Dan Schwartz and Senior Lecturer Denise Pope.
The crisis hastened a transition that was already in progress, says Stevens, a sociologist and author whose books include Remaking College: The Changing Ecology of Higher Education. He also coauthored a recent op-ed in the New York Times exploring the effects of the pandemic on higher education.
Students who attend residential universities find much of the value of that time in the full-tilt, wraparound, 24/7 experience, Stevens says. But “only about a third of conventional-age undergraduates experience that kind of academic life world,” he says. “And the reason it’s only a third is because that mode of delivery is just spectacularly expensive.”
The pandemic has pushed colleges to contemplate just how much and under what conditions physical co-presence is worth the cost, Stevens says. “There's no question that the major cost center of higher education in the United States is what is entailed in having a bunch of people in the same place at the same time for extended stretches of the academic calendar.”
Whether that experience is sustainable for colleges—and for students and their families—was questionable before the pandemic and more so now, says Stevens.
“It’s a very hard thing for educators and parents to reckon with. And it will have far-reaching consequences for how we think about the value of higher education going forward.”
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