Burton: Universities Should Take the Pandemic as an Opportunity to Become More Competitive


Curtis Lin

Librarian Dale Larsen working showing how to do research online at the J. Willard Marriott Library in Salt Lake City, UT on Wednesday May 23, 2018. (Photo by Curtis Lin | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Logan Burton, Opinion Writer


Enrolling in college and receiving a degree has become a familiar part of the American experience. In 1965, enrollment in public colleges was just under four million – in 2018, it was a little over 14.5 million. Formerly seen as a luxury for the affluent, a college degree is now often considered necessary for a stable financial life. But not everyone is confident about that. Citing lower returns on investment and rising student debt, many people are reconsidering the value of a college degree. The COVID-19 crisis is the perfect opportunity for universities to adapt to those concerns and reclaim their more competitive status in the education market.

Funding Crunch

Despite its loftier objectives of changing lives through education, a university is just like any other firm: seeking to maximize profits. As they struggle to navigate the pandemic, colleges and universities throughout the United States (especially public ones) are watching their finances closely, and several are considering extending online-only courses through the fall. Online learning isn’t new in higher education – many students have used it to earn degrees – but others prefer on-campus, in-person instruction. Despite cheaper prices, online school spaces have a hard time connecting students with a social circle, career assistance, counseling and effective one-on-one tutoring. Many incoming freshmen are considering deferring their fall semesters, fearing that education quality is diminished with online learning. Additionally, students who have lost work because of the pandemic may find themselves unable to pay tuition costs. With what may be a significantly lower fall enrollment, colleges could lose a substantial portion of their revenue on top of state funding cuts. This lost income could have contributed to bettering instruction and student resources. In other words, students will be paying the same price for a lower quality service.

The Double-edged Sword of Online Learning

Educational technology is a double-edged sword for universities. On one hand, colleges use online tools to offer their students options that suit their individual needs. On the other hand, people can find similar courses on the same subjects for free or at a much cheaper price on sites like Khan Academy, MasterClass or even YouTube. These platforms provide instant access to courses on hundreds of subjects, most of which are covered in courses taught in universities as well.

Online-only universities such as Western Governors and Maryville pose an even bigger threat to public, accredited schools like the University of Utah. Unlike their free counterparts, these universities offer degrees. Whereas free education sites usually act as compliments to a traditional college education, online universities act as a substitute. Forgoing the costs of in-person credit hours, room and board, parking and other fees make studying online a rather attractive alternative. Especially with many brick-and-mortar universities going temporarily online, why shouldn’t students pay less for a similar service at one of these non-traditional schools?

Preparing for the Future

However, there are several significant competitive advantages to brick-and-mortar colleges. A degree from a certain institution can carry a status and signal a graduate’s competence to employers (even though degrees themselves aren’t a good metric of intelligence). Whatever the quality of an online education, online-only programs’ reputations are far overshadowed by those of more established institutions.

Employers also place heavy emphasis on the skills and experience of potential hires. University degrees do not guarantee certain skills or experience, but they certainly provide resources by which a student can develop them. In STEM-related fields, for example, labs teach practical skills that students will need in the workplace later on. Internships and research projects give students on-site training and potentially lead to careers. Online schools can’t always provide these kinds of hands-on experiences. Brick-and-mortar universities, on the other hand, provide engaging practicums on a large scale. The more marketable graduates are, the more competitive the institution will be – so traditional universities should work hard to emphasize learning opportunities like internships, research activities and fieldwork by investing in them further and encouraging students to participate.

Like much of the financial world at large, universities are facing tough economic challenges. An expected decrease of enrollment for fall semester could spell large financial hits, forcing colleges to reevaluate and bolster their strengths. Schools that do so successfully may become more competitive in the wake of the pandemic than ever before.


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