Dan: Chris Quintana is a USA Today reporter covering the American higher education system. He writes about the cost of college and how that impacts the social mobility of the average person. Part of that coverage includes a focus on student loans and how that debt can both empower an education but also affect financial decisions over a lifetime. Quintana also writes about the culture of college, which includes questions about how Americans define free speech and who is entitled to it and when. He also reports on how some leverage access to selective universities to enrich themselves, including an investigation of a multimillion-dollar New Zealand company offering questionable counseling services to students globally. Quintana started at USA Today in March of 2019. Prior to that, he covered similar issues for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He previously covered the University of New Mexico for the Albuquerque Journal, the largest newspaper in the state of New Mexico. You can follow him on Twitter @CQuintana. Chris recently published an article in USA Today entitled “Students are weary of online classes, but colleges can’t say whether they’ll open in fall 2020.” Chris, welcome to the podcast.
Chris: Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here.
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Dan: Let me begin with students. Your article has a lot of direct quotes from students. What have you found when you talk to students about their experience switching to online?
Chris: Thanks for asking. So you know, I’ve over the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to talk to a lot of students just kind of about their experience in online courses. You know, kind of informally. They’ve told me that they feel like they’re doing more work that may or may not be true. It may just be that they’re at home and they don’t have anything else to do, and it feels like they have more work, but I think they do feel more weary just because they don’t have some of the outlets that they’re accustomed to. You know, some of the student services that, you know, they might’ve benefited from in the form of counseling or advisement or even just being able to see their friends consistently. Right. So that’s one thing I’m seeing a lot of. And the other thing that I’m seeing, you know, a lot of students are very apprehensive about another semester of online instruction. And I understand that, you know administrators have this tool, you know, the digital delivery is probably the most powerful tool that administrators have to kind of fight the coronavirus. But I think that’s not necessarily translating to students who are frankly just kind of exhausted and also feel a little frustrated at painful tuition prices when they don’t feel like they’re getting the full experience.
Dan: That’s interesting. I obviously talk to a lot of teachers as well, and they share some of the same exhaustion. Which leads me to my next question, which is that the situation we face, it’s a fluid one, but based on what you know today, what percent of schools would you say are definitely abandoning the idea of holding traditional face-to-face classes in the fall semester and plan to continue with the all-online delivery?
Chris: Yeah, so it’s a little hard to nail down specific numbers, but in the latest story we published about the fall enrollment, we cited a survey from the American association of collegiate registrars and admission officers. In that, they found that about 5% of colleges had committed to online classes for the fall semester. And we’re starting to see a handful of colleges kind of publicly announced that they’re going online or, or they’re doing online heavily and reducing class size. Just today, we saw San Jose State and Cal State East Bay both saying that they’re going to ditch the lecture hall and they’re going to offer more online options. I think they were talking about trying to come up with some in-person classes for courses that are harder to emulate online, you know, like dance and labs and that sort of thing. But I would say at this point it’s probably around 10%. Or somewhere around there, it’s hard to say. Like the only entity that’s capable of telling us when or how classes return is the coronavirus and it hasn’t exactly been communicative with us.
Dan: Well, let’s talk money. Any school that takes the step of remaining online solely online will probably take a real hit financially. Can you give us an overview of what kinds of impacts a school faces when it does that? What are you seeing?
Chris: You know, I think there’s a couple of things at play, right? One of the points I tried to raise in my story is that there is going to be a segment of the population that just doesn’t go, you know, they did not sign up for online classes, and if they wanted to do that, they would have looked at the University of Phoenix or some other online operator. So they have to account for that, the loss of those enrollment dollars. But then there are other things that were seen as well. I mean, part of the initial university response to the coronavirus nationally was to empty the dorms. I mean, these are miniature cities for all intents and purposes, but they also generate a lot of revenue, and the dining halls as well.
So if you remove students from campus, you’re also losing that income. You’re also losing parking permits. You’re losing a bookstore sale. Well, maybe not bookstore sales, but you’re losing some of the stuff that students might buy on campus. And you know, I think there’s also impacts to retention as well. There are a lot of vulnerable students out there who rely on the university to kind of provide their living spaces and kind of their financial aid. And if they don’t have access to that, I don’t think they’re coming back. So there are long-term costs to that as well. One other thing, I think we’re also going to see, and you probably know this better than I, your audience probably knows this better than I do, but you know, for the public, I think we’re probably looking at a reduction in state expenditures as well. I mean, we’re seeing just states being hammered economically by this. And so I think a lot of states or a lot of state institutions that have been relying on state support are going to see that decline. And obviously, you know, you and I both know that state support of public institutions has been in decline in a lot of places. And I mean, when you look at the example of what happened at the University of Alaska this last summer, imagine that kind of being played out on the national level. And I think we’re going to see kind of a pretty heavy impact on higher education.
Dan: Well since you bring up the idea of reduced public funding, for some schools it’s a triple hit, maybe even a quadruple hit, if you include fundraising, but the triple hit is you have a reduction of funds, revenue from students directly, then you have a reduction possibly in state funds. In fact, I think that’s obviously pretty likely at this point. But then there are some like community colleges that rely on local taxation, which presumably there’ll be a lot of pressure to reduce that as well. So if we assume that schools will broadly receive significantly less revenue, what kind of cuts do you see currently happening in response to the reduced revenue, and what kind of cuts do you think we will see coming down the line?
Chris: We’re already seeing furloughs, and we’re likely to see the layoffs in the future. I think we’re going to see a reduction in adjunct labor, which you know, is always a challenge for that particular workforce. I think we’ll probably see a reduction in new building projects. I know that there are a few schools that have kind of put those plans on hold. And I think there will be, to go back to the adjunct labor, if you reduce that then you’re obviously going to see a reduction in classes too, right? So it’s a little hard for me to say you know, conclusively what that’s what that’s going to look like, but I think we’re definitely going to see trimming around the edges, especially for anyone who’s not tenured. Although, you know, a lot of a few universities have declared financial exigency, right? And if that’s the case, you know, God knows what happens there. But you know, we’re also seeing in some places, I mean Vermont put this idea on the table, but they’ve since pulled it because of a public outcry, but they proposed closing down three campuses. And I think we’re going to see that conversation come up more in the public space. And we’re already seeing the closure of some smaller private schools. I mean, Urbana University has announced that it closed its doors. And so I think, you know, especially for those non-selective liberal arts schools, they’re going to be hit pretty hard.
Dan: You know, you have a much more broader perspective on higher education than many listeners. Many of our listeners, you know, their main focus is of course their own institutions. But you have a broader picture, a national picture. Look into your crystal ball for a moment. Given what you know, do you think that the outcome for the fall semester will be mild, moderate, severe? How would you characterize it?
Chris: I want to be careful here because I don’t want to be alarmist, but based on everything that I’m seeing, it appears that the impact is going to be pretty severe. You know, I mentioned this in one of the stories that I wrote recently, but there’s just been a slew of surveys out there kind of about the future of enrollment, and it doesn’t look pretty, and all the students I’ve talked to have indicated that they are changing their plans for the fall semester. Especially the incoming freshmen. I think we’re going to see more students deciding to stay closer to home. I think we’re also going to see more students perhaps choosing a cheaper option rather than, you know, maybe they had this great school that they got into and they were excited about. But now their parents don’t have a job and the money that was going to go to their education may not be there. I was talking with a student recently who had these grand plans. He wanted to go to like Seton Hall. He wanted to go to Catholic school or basically anywhere in a major metropolitan area. And now he is feeling that a more rural school is perhaps a better option just because he doesn’t want to go to school and then find out halfway through the semester, oh, now I have to spend the rest of it in my dorm, and what’s the point of living in this great city if I can’t you know, go out and explore? So actually it’s a funny story. I think his mom encouraged him to apply to her alma mater, which is Miami University in Ohio. And he had jokingly told me that it was never really high on my list, but you know, it’s kind of jumped up now. So, you know, there, there may actually be some universities who do better. I think community colleges might see perhaps an uptick in students. But overall, I think we’re going to see a lot of a lot of – I’m trying to find the right word. I think it’s going to be painful for a lot of people in higher education. Whether it’s closures, whether it’s reduced services, whether it’s altering what classes actually look like. I don’t think the normal university experience that we’ve seen before will be present on campus this fall.
Dan: My guest has been Chris Quintana, a USA Today reporter covering the American higher education system. You can follow him on Twitter @cquintana. Chris, thanks very much for joining us.
Chris: Thank you so much for having me.