As nation-wide university administrations ponder if or how they will reopen in the fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, countless students and parents are inevitably reassessing if or why the value of learning and life opportunity experiences those institutions afford are worth the high costs.

Brick and mortar campus programs have been facing the same economically impactful transitions to internet-connected virtual alternatives that have led to a thriving new tele-work business era.

Coronavirus social distancing safety priorities turbocharged these transformational trends.

Growing numbers of young people have good reason to wonder which types of both traditional and online offerings will best prepare and qualify them for practical and rewarding technical mind sets and skill sets they’ll need in an uncertain future.

Even in a healthy economy, a variety of jobs they may be considering today are likely to be nonexistent by the time they are in their 30s. Many of the more conventional work opportunities will be performed or at least transformed by new waves of automation and artificial intelligence (AI)-driven algorithms.

Many college program sponsors, including federal and state taxpayers and stakeholders, have similarly legitimate interests regarding how their support will innovate and benefit constituent economies, industries, businesses and jobs.

Such programs are essential to prepare participants to respond to the next crisis, to create resilience and adapt to unfamiliar territory, and to help lead society forward.

Competing tele-work and distance learning opportunities, for example, can be expected to increasingly affect all professions and jobs sectors, community settings, and geographic regions.

This rapidly advancing trend has already become particularly evident in finance, insurance, real estate, transportation, manufacturing and construction, and retail industries, along with steady gains in healthcare and law.

Learning without geographic boundaries extends both new and existing program accessibilities to unlimited international, national, state and regional student markets, including underserved rural populations.

Innovative and effective technical non-degree programs are also in growing demand to teach specialized problem-solving skills — for example to support operations and maintenance of automated systems of warehousing, production and distribution that businesses and industries will increasingly depend upon.

The American Council on Education, a university trade group, has predicted that nationwide college enrollment this fall will drop up to 15% over last year. Moody’s Investors Service recently projected that enrollment will rise, but that families will seek lower-cost options. This will reduce by 5% to 13% what colleges earn from tuition along with room and board fees.

Higher education leaders must seize upon this period of upheaval and uncertainty as an incentive to apply and optimize benefits of virtual classrooms at every level to make learning more effective — both off campus or on.

To remain relevant in the post-COVID-19 world, universities must be able to demonstrate real progress toward leading broader societal and business transformations in demonstrably valued ways.

As noted by Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur and former Nebraska governor and U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey in a May 5 Wall Street Journal piece, “Higher Ed’s Coronavirus Opportunity,” the entire purpose of a college education has now become questionable.

Mazur and Kerrey observe that the quality of preparation — of actual learning — at many of these institutions has come into doubt, with employers bemoaning the lack of professional readiness in recent graduates:

“Even as technological advances have upended markets everywhere, brand name universities have been largely immune to the forces that have driven innovation and transformation elsewhere.”

The two authors attribute much of the blame to a lack of institutional performance accountability:

“As long as universities could continue attracting new students, expanding their endowments and paying tenured faculty members, there was little pressure to make substantial change. With similar educational offerings and little incentive to reform, U.S. institutions have been content to divide the applicant pool among themselves, using rankings to determine primacy in any given year.

“Instead of focusing on improvements in core offerings, they have collectively spent billions on amenities and athletics to compete for top students. They’ve modernized their campuses instead of their teaching methods and educational approaches.”

The authors add that the pandemic lays bare the shortcomings of contemporary higher education:

“Although there is ample evidence that online learning can lead to better outcomes for graduates, many students are reconsidering their plans for the fall, not sure if school is worth the money without the campus environment, social connections and athletics.”

Just as in other industries, as more and more universities are offering competitive low-cost, high quality options, each must either adapt and lead, or forfeit economically sustainable opportunities and advantages to others that do.

Directly put, universities and colleges are being challenged as never before to “sell” the relevance and quality of their educational products to increasingly skeptical consumers and contributors.

Think of this as an introductory higher education crash course lesson in free market capitalism.

This article originally appeared at NewsMax.


  • Larry Bell

    CFACT Advisor Larry Bell heads the graduate program in space architecture at the University of Houston. He founded and directs the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture. He is also the author of "Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax."