Anyone who’s tuned in to the news this fall could be excused for thinking that college students are poised to destroy the health of our nation. Cynics have argued that the only reason for colleges to stay open is money. Of course, some especially vulnerable schools truly are facing an existential crisis. That this potential fails to engender much sympathy may reflect a more general lack of regard for education in the current moment and the growing sense that the higher ed sector needs to rein in the cost of a degree.
The biggest issue at stake here is not the fate of a relatively few campuses; it is our nation’s future. As young people enter what likely will be one of the worst job markets in decades, a college degree will be more important than ever. A quality education transforms a student’s opportunity to better their life, and this fundamental truth has mostly been ignored in the public debate about whether college campuses should reopen.
Students and their families understand this. Many have told us they want to be on campus, and the fact that they’re here, knowing the risks, shows they are willing to make the necessary adjustments because a college degree is just too important. What we are finding is that many young people prefer the benefits of joining a living-learning community on campus — even with masks and social distancing — to learning remotely from their homes. So, we must try.
It’s also high time to emphasize the benefits, indeed the moral obligations, of colleges and universities to educate students during this pandemic. We all have seen that COVID-19’s effects have been unequal. Communities of color, poorer communities, and people without access to quality health care are disproportionately suffering cruel losses of lives and livelihoods due to the socially unequal distribution of harms by this disease. Any declines in fragile enrollment gains for low-income, first-generation and BIPOC students will be exacerbated by campuses closing or failing to meet the challenges of operating with a full range of supportive services during this difficult time.
Despite systemic inequality in this country, higher education remains a ladder of opportunity. Closing campuses would, in effect, remove the rungs from that ladder for legions of students — large numbers of whom would be the first in their families to obtain a degree. As a former free lunch and Pell Grant recipient, I feel keenly every day the value of my education and I know a college campus would have been the best place for me during a pandemic. While taking a year off of college is a luxury enjoyed by some more privileged students, needier students would be disproportionately harmed by time away from campus.
If we do not try to work together to keep colleges and universities open now, we will miss crucial opportunities to train the students who will solve the thorniest problems and wrestle with the biggest questions of our time.
We have difficult challenges ahead, without a doubt. But the colleges and universities that can adapt to pandemic conditions and stay open should do so. At Macalester, we are learning lessons from this fall, and we must operate in ways that are prudent and reduce risks as much as possible. We will continue to follow the science and public health guidelines, and make adjustments based on data, prioritizing the health and safety of our communities. These past months have shown that it’s possible to educate our students while reducing risks, and that work must continue. Our students need us to meet the challenge so that we can fulfill our missions and prepare the next generation of leaders who will shape the future for us all.
Suzanne Rivera, Ph.D., is the president of Macalester College.
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