Bulletin: A bunch of students brought back to college got together to drink beer on the quad.
This shocking behavior resulted in 23 students being suspended at Syracuse for violating COVID-19 safety rules and this finger-pointing memo from school administrators:
“Last night, a large group of first-year students selfishly jeopardized the very thing that so many of you claim to want from Syracuse University — that is, a chance at a residential college experience,” wrote J. Michael Haynie, Syracuse University’s vice chancellor, in an statement titled “Last Night’s Selfish and Reckless Behavior.”
Purdue recently suspended 36 students for attending a party, as well. Tulane is imposing $500 fines and probation for the whole semester if students have one person over the limit imposed in dorm rooms.
Are we really shocked that 18-year-olds are doing what they do naturally, especially when they’ve been cooped up with us parents for months, eager for friends their own age and jonesing for their first taste of college freedom?
These college administrators sound to me a little like Louis when he closed Rick's Cafe in “Casablanca.” “I'm shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on in here" he says, picking up his winnings on the way out.
Give us a break administrators. You brought students back because you needed the money, not because you had an actual, workable plan for keeping your campuses safe and somehow keeping teenagers from fraternizing with each other.
Some of my reporter friends are cynical enough to believe that some schools brought students back to get their tuition payments locked down while fully planning to send students home at the first sign of trouble.
That’s pretty much what happened at Colorado College here in Colorado Springs.
CC this week shut down its campus after an outbreak of COVID-19 within half a month of students’ return to school.
After 800 of the 2,100 students moved in in mid-August, 11 Colorado College students tested positive for the coronavirus, and the school quarantined residents of three dorms — Loomis, Mathias, and South halls.
On Tuesday, the school announced it would move from in-person to mostly remote learning, and the majority of residential students have to move off campus by Sept. 20.
According to a survey of 1,500 colleges by the New York Times, 51,000 cases of infection have been reported since school started and 60 deaths. More than 100 colleges, including Colorado State University, have reported more than 100 cases each.
As of Thursday, Colorado had 268 cases at 17 schools.
Julia L. Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, believes college administrators should be shouldering the blame for these infections and deaths, not the students. “What’s happening on college campuses is a microcosm of what’s happening in this country, which is a deflection of responsibility from the top down to the individual,” she said in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education.
“It’s unconscionable for these administrators to be shaming and blaming and punishing their students for what we all knew would happen. For any of us who take a minute to put ourselves back in our 18-year-old selves, asking students to essentially lock themselves in their rooms for a semester isn’t going to be an effective public-health approach.”
Daniel Goldberg, a University of Colorado Anschutz bioethics professor, told Chalkbeat that controlling a pandemic goes against the very nature of college campuses. University communities prioritize socialization and learning among groups, and young adults are primed for that behavior.
“If you are dependent on college kids behaving like you want them to behave, that is not a good plan,” Goldberg said.
College kids so lack the maturity for navigating this, in fact, that some of them in Alabama are playing a kind of roulette, holding parties to intentionally infect each other and betting on who can catch COVID-19 first.
So why did colleges do it?
“I don’t think anybody is explicitly saying that financial considerations are more important than the safety of their students,” explains David Maxwell, a two-time college president and senior fellow of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
But the overarching pressure on colleges right now is financial.
“What they had to do in spring cost them significant amounts of money,” i.e. refunding tuition and closing campuses on a dime when coronavirus first hit.
Those fiscal pressures are now so great that many institutions, especially small private ones, are living hand to mouth. That means that financial considerations clearly influenced their decision-making about the kids they are entrusted with.
“There are a lot of institutions in this country that for a long time now have been counting bodies in August to see if they are going to be able to pay their bills,” said Maxwell.
“In that environment, many looked at the books and came to the conclusion that if they had to endure this without students, they were going to go out of business.”
Colleges are so tuition driven now that they don’t have enough other resources to fall back on, such as robust endowments.
“As much as 85-90% of revenue for small private schools comes from tuition,” said Maxwell.
And public institutions, especially those in Colorado, can’t rely on state funding like they used to. Most public universities get by with 12-15% state support now.
Colorado has cut so much from higher education that in fiscal year 2017, the most recent figures available, the state’s per-student spending for higher education ranked 48th in the nation, according to a report from a Boulder-based national higher education organization.
This spring, Colorado’s Joint Budget Committee slashed $493 million more from next year’s higher education budget.
Now our kids are paying the price for those cuts with their health — and lives.
So what are schools to do in this age of COVID? This may just be an exercise too difficult and complex to choreograph right now.
Every school and state is different, says Maxwell, so one strategy does not fit all.
“The ones that are going to do it right are the ones that did good scenario planning in the spring, so, as the environment changed, they had already sketched out the current scenario in their playbook. They weren’t taken by surprise,” said Maxwell.
“Also, institutions with flexibility are doing the best. Some schools divided the semester into two terms, so they can adjust their response to how the infection looks in seven and a half weeks from now. That way they miss half a semester rather than a whole one.”
Maxwell sees a silver lining for the institutions that survive.
“This will leave a permanent imprint on institutions, and not necessarily negative,” he added.
“Adapting to technology and virtual learning may have enduring value for higher education." Providing multiple ways for students to educate themselves — with multiple pricing options — could be the sustainable business model of the future.
That’s small comfort right now for my 18-year-old in our basement, whose school went online before it opened to be safe. After his first day of classes, I asked him if it felt like college.
“It felt like Zoom, dad.”
That's hard for a dad to hear. But at least he's alive.