Researcher Dr. Mitch Lingo, author of “The COVID Cannibalization of the American College Town,” explains to host Dr. Daniel Barwick how colleges, college towns, and even students are all cannibalizing themselves in responding to the coronavirus. This transcript has been slightly edited for readability.
Dan: My guest this week is Mitch Lingo, a recent PhD graduate from the University of Iowa‘s Educational Policy and Leadership Studies Program. His research focuses on extracurricular activities and outside the classroom behaviors of students in the P-20 education system and how these activities and behaviors serve to reproduce or mitigate class differences in outcomes before attending graduate school. He taught middle school in Omaha, Nebraska for six years. Dr. Lingo currently lives in Iowa City, Iowa, which has obviously been in the news a lot lately for the significant spread of COVID-19 within the university there, and recently published an article at Medium.com entitled “The COVID Cannibalization of the American College Town.” Dr. Lingo, welcome to the podcast.
Lingo: Thank you for having me.
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Dan: In your article, you wrote that “universities are increasingly relying on the social experience of college as their point of sale.” Can you tell us about what you mean by that?
Lingo: The best analogy goes back to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, otherwise known as Alice in Wonderland, as many of us know it. There’s the scene in the book where the Red Queen keeps running in place – running faster and faster in the same place –and colleges today have to do more to attract students in the current consumer model of higher education, where colleges depend on tuition to stay solvent. If tuition drops, colleges close. Elite colleges have the demand already – they can offer the traditional model of excellence in liberal arts education, in addition to maximizing social experiences in order to stay solvent. Other schools have to make extreme choices that were not as pronounced prior to the rise of the competitive consumer model of college, that now hinges on happy memories and social networks, as well as shifting expectations of schools and pre-professional training. For me, I start to pick up on this – the salesmanship of college – by noting the similarity to my father’s salesmanship skills. I’m the son of a grocer who could sell lawn furniture during an Iowa winter. He actually usually did that around Christmastime. He’d take whatever was out of the backroom and just get rid of it. So with that in mind, I look at the way people sell things all the time. Being in Iowa, you have the primary season every four years, and one of the things Chris Christie noted in the 2015 primary was that he called out rock climbing walls, specifically at Iowa State. But I think it’s a little more nuanced than that; you have multiple marketing market forces driving this. First of all is “institutional isomorphism,” which is the idea of trying to keep up with those above your institution and selectivity. So, you know, whatever the Ivy League does, it sets the bar for the Big 10 and the PAC 12 schools, whatever the Big 10 and PAC 12 does sets the bar for the next level of selectivity, and so on and so forth. So you even see community colleges reaching out to look like the four-year schools. Before I did this interview, I looked up and found that Red Rocks Community College in Colorado has an actual rock climbing wall; there’s mountain climbing right outside your back door, but they have a rock climbing wall at the community college.
So then there’s the competition within selectivity and the competition within the region. So you’ll see one state school will build an ultra-deluxe workout center, the next school nearby will do this. So there’s also the side of socializing through extracurricular activities in college – that brings the chance for internships, job opportunities, graduate school, as well as human flourishing. One of the things about the socialization is that the normative expectation of college as a way to grow your resume and CV through socializing. How this translates into cultural mobility or cultural reproduction in regards to socioeconomic status is less understood. Armstrong and Hamilton’s book, Paying for the Party , argues that socializing activities act more of a way of cultural reproduction, but even they state that they were at a selective Research 1 state college, which may have some influence on that. And there was a National Bureau of Economic Research paper that came out in 2013, it was recently published in 2018 in the Journal of Labor Economics called “College as a Country Club: Do Colleges Cater to Students’ Preferences for Consumption?” The authors of this were from the University of Michigan, Brian Jacob, Brian McCall, and Kevin Stange. So bear in mind what I’m going to give you for information isn’t from myself, it’s from them. So what this group of researchers did was that they pulled out data between 1996 and 2004 of 1,304 year public and private nonprofit postsecondary institutions in the United States. One of the first things that they know for every 51 cents that colleges put on consumption amenities throughout those colleges throughout their universities (whether it be athletic departments, student services those rock climbing walls, things of that nature) they spent $1 in academics. This ratio varied pretty wildly from 26 cents for every dollar in the lowest 10th percentile, to 8 cents per dollar in the 90th percentile. Their final focus was just kind of to look at how academic spending and consumption spending affected what kind of students were wanting to go to these schools. So what they found was that higher-achieving students were more willing to pay for academic amenities while more affluent students were willing to pay a premium for social or consumption amenities. So it creates a situation where less-selective schools have a greater incentive to spend on social amenities and market those social amenities, while schools that have higher academics selectivity have a greater incentive to spend money on academic amenities. As schools have become more reliant on this tuition model to pay the bills, they need the affluent students to help with their bottom line. So they’re in a situation where you have to spend on these social amenities to have the students that can pay the full tuition bill.
Dan: It reminds me a little of a car dealership that sells a lot of base-model cars, but really also needs to sell SUVs in order to actually get the right margin.
Lingo: Yeah. And that would be an apt way of describing it. Whenever I get into this argument with friends and family, one of my favorite places to go is to look up the University of Colorado-Boulder’s admissions page, because on their website, it isn’t until sixty-six words in, or four sentences into their description of their institution, that they address anything on academics or education. You go to Harvard University‘s website and they discuss curriculum in the second sentence. So Harvard, you know, you can just see the salesmanship on the admissions page right away.
Dan: Well, you talked about how colleges are cannibalizing themselves writing that “with colleges already moving from in-person to online, schools will erode the trust of students and parents and guardians that have invested both time and money moving the student into the school.” Can you talk a little bit about how this cannibalizes trust?
Lingo: First, one of the things that I should recognize before I talk about cannibalizing is where I live and where these observations are coming from. I live in Iowa City, Iowa. The state of Iowa is kind of the, what I refer to as “Covid’s wild, wild west” in the United States. Ames, Iowa, and Iowa City, Iowa have the number one and number three highest rates of infection in the United States as of Sunday. Within the context where I live, there’s still no mask mandate. At the state, it wasn’t until August 27th that bars were shut down, but those alcohol establishments with 50% or more in food sales can remain open until 10:00 PM. There’s been nothing in the statewide proclamation that was released on the 27th that discouraged anything to do with large social gatherings The University of Iowa, for example, put one out for gatherings of more than 10, that you cannot, I don’t know what they’re going to do. [Laughs] It’s that continuation of “don’t do anything or else we’re going to do something we don’t know yet.” To go back to your question, I think in this cannibalization of the colleges and universities doing it in the community themselves, and it’s really just a booby trap lying in wait for students. The rates of COVID will continue to climb to the point where schools will be forced to go online. So schools are gambling to see which comes first: rates so high that they have to go online immediately, or if they can push it past that point in time where and this is my conjecture and opinion, that the fall tuition money will be nonrefundable. Because this goes back to what they have sold students. They sold students on this bill of socialization. You throw in online education, you start taking them away from dorms you lose those tuition dollars and you need the tuition dollars to stay open. The colleges present this decision-making process as what they do that has been as the safest for students. They talk about all these things that they’re doing to mitigate the spread of COVID, but they’ve actually determined that this is financially safest for them. It’s in my opinion based on a shortsighted grab to get as much money as possible period. Alcohol sales in this town have been through the roof for a few weeks in this town and in other college towns, which are doing kind of the same short-term maximum profits as the codependent nature of college towns. And this will become more clear to parents who are often footing the bill, you know, so there is an appropriate amount of anger, and their trust will be lost in this scenario, especially if they go online after that 25%, 50%, 75%, 100% threshold of tuition and fees are retained, because it just becomes more apparent that this decision has been made for money in particular. And you know, one of the ones that I’ve been saying to my friends and family is the 50% mark, because you know, that seems more like when the cost has really become almost a sunk cost in that kind of way, where, you know, “I’ve already invested 50%, I better stick out this semester.” There’s still this idea for a lot of people out there that colleges and universities are seen as an institution to trust. We send our young there, and for this institution to act as a surrogate parent within this trust, we give you a whole lot of money and now you take good care of our children for the next however many years. Our children will come home on some weekends. Part of the normative social expectations that we’ve set up as a society is that these students go to school for four years and parents are essentially, they’re still taking care of them, but not having to take care of them as much for the ages 18 to 22.
I should recognize that there are many different types of students, and I’m not trying to focus on what we classify as the traditional student of 18 years old, going off to college, because there are plenty of people that are going to school that have families, but, you know, all of a sudden the trust is broken when the university or college takes that money and send that child home. The value of dollars spent is not only on simple academics by the students or other interested parties; they’re paying for an experience. If you’ve been sold in experience, you want that experience, and if you’re not going to get that experience, you want your money back. And that honestly leaves a question: if the universities go online, why should students be paying for the social services that they cannot even use? And I have quite a few friends that work in student services, but how does one justify paying for a sustainability office or even the staff at the wellness centers? If students cannot use these facilities, what ends up happening is that if you go online and students stop enrolling, what does this trickle down mean for the larger community and within the college itself or the university? It’s one of those large elephants in the room that a lot of people in higher education are demanding online classes are ignoring, is that at the end of the day, there’s not the money to pay for these huge bureaucracies that rely on students coming to the colleges or universities for the experience of higher education. Even in the academic side of things, can you get the same kind of liberal arts college academic experience in the online forum? It’s one of those things that I’ve questioned. And at the end of the day, people are making higher education investment for the fall. In that trust postsecondary education needed to have had been transparent in stating, “Hey, we may go online. We may close the dorms, but you’re welcome to come anyway.” But they operate on such thin margins. They were all afraid of drops in enrollment. So they can’t really have made that statement. One of the parts that was frustrating to watch all summer long was the lack of the administrators – I’m talking top administrators, chancellors, presidents, provosts, not getting into the, unfortunately, what I would call the political fray surrounding COVID 19, and stating right then and there, back in May, “Hey, we need to keep these rates low as they are. And we can’t have them go up if you want college this fall.” And, you know, we never really saw that. It was more that…I think of Mitch Daniels at Purdue was one of the first ones to say “We’re going to go on, we’re going to have college in the fall. We’re going to have it, we’re going to have it.” But, you know, I don’t recall seeing anybody else doing the counterstatement to that.
Dan: Let’s shift to the college towns themselves. You make the point that the towns are also cannibalizing themselves as a result of their dependence on college student business. Tell us a little bit about that.
Lingo: Well, my criticism here revolves mostly around the alcohol industry surrounding college towns. I know from an estimate in June, the restaurant industry had stated they lost $120 billion at that point. So I don’t have specific numbers on bars, but you can only imagine the dire straits that they have been put under and there doesn’t appear to be any stimulus help anytime soon. So as these businesses have been cash-strapped and without guidance or laws, they have entered a kind of a prisoner’s dilemma where they have a choice to implement the best practices of social distancing, masking, small groups, et cetera, but at the bar, next door doesn’t follow the same rules. They risk losing drinkers, or students, to a different bar. And this is not just college towns, this is the alcohol industry altogether.
Now, for anybody that has spent time in their own college bars, seeing back when they were in school, or can just drive through their campus town, it does not take a long time to come to the conclusion how COVID could spread quickly: the general loudness of the music, talking over each other, sharing drinks and things of that nature. And this criticism isn’t just limited to bars, but liquor and alcohol-selling stores contribute to it too. This comes with house parties. So even if you get buy-in and follow-through from the local service industries, there needs to be buy in from the local liquor and alcohol-selling stores as well. But overall, though, what inevitably happens is that the bars and parties end up stoking what I would call “the COVID buyers.” The more students get infected, the more likely there are restrictions placed on the service industry. As these restrictions continue to tighten, they end up losing more and more of the revenue stream, but the problem still remains – the liquor store doesn’t face any of these things. So even if the students remain, let’s say the school goes to an online option or goes online-only, and keeps the students in the dorms. You still have the problem of liquor stores. And now the next problem is, if the students are sent home, then the next level of bleeding happens. In my writing. I note a barber, a chef, and a baker. Each one is a person that I know that has a livelihood depending on college students being here. And it is my barber that is starting to look for another job in case their students go home. It’s the chef debating on keeping their downtown business open. And it is the baker who has been out of work since March, because place that they were baking at, went from 40 bakers to eight in one night, because all of a sudden all their accounts dried up.
Dan: Your article, in what’s probably its most disturbing imagery, discusses the final act of cannibalism as student on student which seems to be students who are so fixated on the college experience that they’re willing to sacrifice each other. Do I have that right? And can you tell us about that?
Lingo: I wouldn’t necessarily come out that strong against the students because this is the group that I would give the most leeway to in their act of cannibalization, because they’re the ones with the developing brains. The adults in the room are the bar owners and the campus administrators. I’ll just focus on first-year students for a moment: incoming first year, students missed their spring sports, they missed prom, they missed graduation. They probably didn’t, since they’re living at home, they had parents and guardians keeping them from socializing and even the ones that returned to home last spring faced a similar lockdown on socialization when they had parents to watch them, or guardians for that matter. Furthermore, a young person may be asymptomatic while another may not be sick for days after exposure. The delayed variable in the nature of the disease process complicates the ability for a young person to understand the consequences of their behavior or coming-of-age-feel that is challenging throughout even normal circumstances. I’ve spent 10 years living in college towns, and it doesn’t take long to understand that students have problems limiting their behavior even in normal circumstances. I will also throw in that the bar scenes prey on the students. I recently saw a leaflet for a bar that was advertising that once they hit a hundred students, there would be “dollar Busch Lights all night long.” The leaflet even showed beautiful young people having the time of their lives. The next reality in here is that the authority structure that we have set in place, the consumer school model, is precarious as best. We have Resident Assistants that are 19, 20, 21, 22 years old, that don’t necessarily have their own brain development as far along, and a lot of them don’t have the timeline of what colleges are using, this race of COVID rates against tuition dollars. And yes, they have the apparent responsibility to help control wildfire from spreading among young people. We bring students to a campus to put peers in charge of them in the dorm, I mean, what could go wrong? The best analogy that I’ve come across for dorms is referring to them functionally as “a stationary cruise ship” – it’s an environment that is intentionally designed for no social distancing. Again, people in residence life, the administrators in Residence Life, are working hard, but there’s only so much one can do when it comes to this kind of living arrangement.
One of the things that I highlight in my writing is that the people that are “partiers.” They’re easy targets. A current project that I’m working on with outside-classroom involvement – what students do outside of class – it’s from a data site called Wabash National Study on Liberal Arts Education – a colleague and I are using 43 institutions that are fairly diverse. We were trying to seek out, using 30 different characteristics of how students spend their time when not in the classroom. In the class analysis, what we found is that there are four groups or typologies of students, and there was only one group that was what we labeled “the party group.” They were socializing more on average, drinking more on average, more binge drinking, more on average. And this was only about 20% of students. That 20% that are going and drinking, are going to the bars and going out and about, they’re the ones that are still going to go back to their dorms. They’re going to go back to whatever houses they live in and then spread it. But again, there’s also socialization and other forms, you walk by your recreation center, can watch students go in and out of Starbucks. So again, it doesn’t take mental gymnastics to understand that the super spreading events aren’t just bars and restaurants and places to party. This exposure isn’t really necessarily happening from parties. It’s from work; it’s from just going home to a house with four roommates. At the end of the day, the students end up expediting the end of their semester because just the way that the environment we have set up, the normative expectations have been set up. It is the perfect event to spread any sort of airborne illness. And the most unfortunate part of all, this is that’s the burden ends up falling on the students with the greatest amount of basic needs insecurities, where you have some students that if colleges go online and they close the dorms, they don’t have places to live and they don’t have the dining center to eat at.
Dan: My guest has been Mitch lingo, a recent PhD graduate from the University of Iowa’s Educational Policy and Leadership Studies program. His research has focused on extracurricular activities and outside the classroom behaviors of students in the P-20 education system. Dr. Lingo, thanks very much for being with us.
Lingo: Thanks for having me.
Dan: Thanks for joining me. Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, or suggestions for content that you’d like to hear about. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Consider stopping by my blog, Mortarboard blog.com. The blog contains links to stories that I think will interest you podcast, transcripts and articles I’ve written. You can also like me on Facebook at Dr. Daniel Barwick, or follow me on Twitter at Daniel Barwick. Looking forward to talking with you in the next episode.