College cost worries, online learning to remain after COVID-19

Many students may seek alternatives to four-year-degrees

Students on the University of Virginia campus in September. The pandemic has forced a reckoning with high tuition costs and traditional instruction methods. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Students on the University of Virginia campus in September. The pandemic has forced a reckoning with high tuition costs and traditional instruction methods. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 11, 2021 at 7:00am

Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic upended colleges and universities across the country, forcing students out of classrooms and online.

University faculty, students and staff alike hope that the steady pace of vaccinations will bring a return to normalcy. But for a sector often resistant to change, the pandemic has speeded a reckoning with skyrocketing costs and traditional instruction methods.

When college classes abruptly moved online in the spring of 2020, many college students found themselves shelling out high fees for an educational experience that did not match their expectations, and the accompanying economic recession left students struggling financially.

In the future, advocates say, students may think more carefully about the cost of college and the value they get for their investment.

“You spend all of this money to get a four-year degree and at the end of your four-year degree, you can’t even get a job,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “That’s why many students are looking at that option and saying, ‘Wait a minute — I may be better off pursuing a different path.’”

That sentiment is not new. Americans hold more than $1.7 trillion in student debt, and college students have long sought alternatives to traditional four-year degrees, such as certificates, associate degrees and apprenticeships.

But the pandemic means that more students could be in the market for postsecondary options that lead to jobs without the massive investment.  

Miguel Cardona, recently confirmed as President Joe Biden’s Education secretary, has highlighted the importance of alternatives to traditional four-year degree programs. 

“Career and technical education and pathways are critical in our recovery,” Cardona said at his February confirmation hearing. “Our community colleges are going to be a major part of our recovery as a country in education. And they play a very important role.”

Cardona noted that fewer students than ever started college in the fall, with declines concentrated at community colleges, which have long served as “entry points to higher education and economic mobility for so many.” A combination of declining enrollment and student decisions to defer postsecondary education could also be bad news for institutions that rely on tuition payments to stay afloat.

Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, told The Wall Street Journal last April that the pandemic could force 200 of the nation’s small, private, liberal arts colleges to close.

“The more prestigious colleges and universities are doing just fine, and students still want to go to Harvard and Yale and Princeton,” Domenech said. “But the other schools at the lower levels are suffering.”

Congress has appropriated billions of dollars to help struggling universities, including nearly $40 billion in the relief package cleared by the House for Biden on Wednesday. But some schools, such as Concordia College outside Manhattan and MacMurray College in Illinois, have either announced plans to close or have already closed permanently.

‘Flipped’ classrooms 

More widespread online learning is another possible post-pandemic change. Remote instruction was already occurring at many higher education institutions, but the pandemic forced all colleges and universities to exclusively use it for some period of time.

Institutions may think more creatively about technology even after students return to classroom learning, said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, an advocacy organization for colleges and universities. Options include “flipped classrooms” in which class time is used for group work or discussion rather than traditional lecturing. And students will likely have more options about how to pursue their degrees, whether through online classes, in-person instruction or a hybrid.

Institutions themselves may be more open to online models, too. According to a McKinsey survey, 39 percent of U.S. higher education faculty members supported increased use of education technologies; after the pandemic began, 45 percent had a higher opinion of remote learning than when the pandemic began, while just 17 percent had a lower opinion.

“There are lots of changes to postsecondary education that were underway before the pandemic and the pandemic will accelerate some of these changes, but many of these things would have happened anyway,” Hartle said. 

Gone for good?

One major aspect of a post-pandemic higher education landscape is the students who have returned — or haven’t returned — following a crisis of historic proportions.

Hartle is most concerned about minority and low-income students whose rates of participation in postsecondary education could decline, even after the pandemic subsides.

“One of the big questions that a lot of us have is whether we will be successful in getting low-income and students of color back on campus,” Hartle said, noting that the pandemic could erase a decade of progress in improving higher education access among populations who could benefit from it the most.

The most important policy step the government can take to address these issues, Hartle said, is to get the pandemic under control so that life can return to normal. But beyond that, he’d like to see investment in historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions and a doubling of the maximum Pell Grant award, both proposals that the Biden administration supports.

Many of the changes the pandemic will wreak on colleges and universities will only become clear after the crisis has subsided. What’s certain is that there will be changes.

“Major societal events affect institutions, whether it’s 9/11 or the pandemic,” Hartle said. “This will be no exception.”