The Greed of American Colleges Could Accelerate the Devastation of COVID-19
A combination of multiple factors could make universities major players in the future of the pandemic
Author is not a medical or scientific professional. The following is opinion.
With autumn right around the corner, many college students are preparing to return to their studies. In some cases, this will be done remotely, while in others, the learning will happen in person. The COVID-19 pandemic is currently an out of control fire raging through the United States and the greed of American colleges and universities may be the gasoline that will unfortunately accelerate the devastation already caused by the virus.
Nationally, the country is seeing thousands of new cases and deaths daily from COVID. The lack of a coordinated federal response has left states and cities scrambling to cobble together their own plans of action. Some states have done better than others in terms of suppression within their borders. While some colleges and universities will either start the academic year doing remote learning or some hybrid of online and in-person instruction, plenty of institutions are planning to move forward with welcoming their students back to campus. This will all be done in the name of trying to conduct business as close to usual as possible, and of course maintain revenue streams. Unfortunately, the start of the college year has the potential to throw the proverbial wrench into the works and wreak even more havoc.
Specific areas of concern include:
Each school that opens its doors to on-site learning is inviting up to thousands of students (many of whom are from different areas or states) to their city and possibly undoing months of hard work of suppression and prevention.
No college is equipped to do the testing and monitoring necessary to ensure students arrive on campus healthy and remain that way throughout the academic year.
While they all certainly can’t be painted with the same brush, college students are often fearless and with that can come recklessness. Even if they arrive at school healthy, there is no way to keep them quarantined and enforce safe and responsible behavior over the next nine months. For an example, look no further than Major League Baseball, which has already weathered several team outbreaks in the first few weeks of the opening of their season despite theoretically throwing greater resources at the problem.
See above. There is no way to fully regulate dangerous behaviors. For college students, that used to mean things like drinking and doing drugs but can now be something as simple as being in larger groups or not wearing masks. There are simply no realistic ways to monitor and enforce.
Campuses are generally not set up to weather pandemics. Cramped residence halls, shared bathrooms, and cramming students in small classroom spaces are all problems. That’s not to mention the challenge of properly cleaning and sanitizing such spaces amidst the constant use and transition.
A state like Vermont is a perfect example of the trouble that could be on the horizon. The small state is currently reporting less than 10 new cases per day. However, they have a number of colleges, which rely primarily on out-of-state students (The University of Vermont — the state’s largest university — annually only has about 20–30% of its students from within the state). Young people rolling in from neighboring states like New York and Massachusetts could drastically change their COVID situation in a hurry.
College is business. It’s big business. It’s not surprising they want to recoup as much of their budgeted revenue as possible. However, their willingness to push the envelope in the face of COVID could impact the country in significant ways unlike other large enterprises.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Schools have endowments of varying amounts. Yale has more than $30 billion; Texas Tech is sitting on more than $1.3 billion; the University of Vermont has $566 million; Middle Tennessee State clocks in with $105 million. If these funds can’t be used during a pandemic to ensure an institution survives whatever changes are necessary to operate or not operate during such challenging times, then what is it for exactly? Instead, schools will tell you that the funds are largely untouchable; set up in in ways that penalize or prevent withdrawal.
Colleges are literally sitting on piles of money while pushing the envelope on operating during a public health crisis. The greed of the matter is palpable, but not even the entire story. The measures and dangers to which professors and staff are having to go through in order to keep the doors open so they can maintain their jobs is a sad commentary on the choices that must be made by those in the field.
During a pandemic, there is no normal. With so many unknowns, balancing the overwhelming desire to maintain status quo competes with the need to slow the spread. This is a difficult dance — particularly in the me-first culture of America. Colleges and universities are on the precipice of possibly opening up a Pandora’s box that cannot be later closed. Recognizing and preventing this would be difficult and costly, but ultimately the right thing to do. Sadly, it seems that in most cases this isn’t even a consideration.