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College Struggles With Coronavirus Show Why Higher Education Needs To Keep Innovating

As reopening colleges become the new hotspots for coronavirus outbreaks, a new front of inequity in higher education has emerged - who gets tested, and when.

Some colleges (like Notre Dame and Purdue) require students to be tested and have negative results before they can come back on campus;  some (like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Stanford, and the University of Southern California) plan to routinely test their students on campus, often weekly, while others have no testing at all.  

Twelve out of 23 Cal State campuses say they don’t offer any testing on campus, and the University of North Georgia has no program except asking students who develop covid-19 symptoms to not go to class.

Some of these discrepancies are related to politics - and the awful politicization of a national crisis.  But others are related to funding:  routine testing can be expensive, and many colleges, particularly those serving lower income or marginalized communities, simply don’t have the funds for routine testing regimens.  

Yet all of us are equally at risk for covid-19.  So the discrepancy in testing is, in fact, an inequity in public safety.

The differences aren’t subtle.  CalMatters notes that the CSU system has a budget of under $19,000 per student, while while the UC system spends about $32,000 per student, and quotes the Chief Health Officer of the USC as acknowledging that “those kinds of disparities are likely to continue driving universities’ (testing) decisions as the pandemic unfolds.

“A larger, more well-resourced university that has a research lab that can build its own test or an academic medical center that can source tests is going to be in a really different position than a smaller state school that doesn’t have a lot of other resources to purchase or build a test,” she said. “For the institutions that can’t afford it, there’s a real equity issue there, I think, and that could get more acute, especially as we’re looking at who’s coming back to campus in January.””

Likewise the New York Times notes that a recent study out of CalTech shows that “the extent of a campus’s testing program correlated strongly with the size of its endowment.”

A number of thoughtful commentators have justifiably criticized universities for shifting the blame and responsibility for preventing covid outbreaks to faculty, staff, and students.  But if a college simply doesn’t have the money to offer routine screenings, what else would we expect them to do?  

Once again, massive inequities show up in higher education because we ask our education system to take care of all kinds of big social responsibilities and then don’t fund it adequately.  

Yes, colleges are the new pandemic hotspots, but there have been other hotspots before and tragically there will be other hotspots soon.  The real question here isn’t “why aren’t all colleges adequately testing their students,” but “why isn’t easy and affordable testing being made available to everyone?”  

That is the underlying inequity here.  Colleges aren’t causing the problem, they’re just where it’s showing up now.  

An emphasis on online learning is one way to address this issue:  if no one will pay for testing, at least keep the students from congregating in ways that are likely to spread the virus around.  But this is also another way of shifting the problem, rich colleges get to have in-person classes, poor ones go online.  As we’ve argued frequently:  online education should not be a “last resort” - it should be used for the courses that it works best for, with the populations who want and need it.  Under the right circumstances, with the right populations, it can very much be a first choice, best choice.  That’s what it should be developed as.

The bottom line is that there may not be an easy fix:  if covid-19 is here to stay, it becomes one more reason to fundamentally reinvent higher education.  Not just to try to fix the existing system, but to see what we’re capable of if we really try new approaches.  Experiments like Calbright college were already crucial as a way to try to address long standing inequities:  now they become ways of addressing new ones, too.