What If Colleges Don’t Reopen Until 2021?Historians in the News
tags: education, universities, academia, coronavirus, social distancing
John Thelin, a University of Kentucky professor and the author of the definitive History of American Higher Education, told me that he’s never seen anything like the dual crisis colleges are facing right now. If this were just a public-health crisis or a financial crisis, institutions likely would have been fine. The two combined, however, have produced an unprecedented disruption. “Colleges are prepared for dramatic, catastrophic events. What they’re not prepared for are drawn-out things that are less spectacular, but that really cannibalize their operations and their budgets,” he said. And unlike hurricanes or tornadoes, which may affect one city or state, this crisis is affecting the whole higher-education sector, so institutions have limited ability to help one another out.
Ironically, the disruption to higher education most comparable to the present situation in scale might be the boom in college enrollment after World War II, Thelin said. When Congress passed the GI Bill, in 1944, government officials underestimated just how many students would take advantage of the scholarship program embedded in the legislation. From 1940 to 1950, the number of Americans earning degrees each year more than doubled, from 200,000 to 500,000. Some universities tripled or quadrupled in size. Indiana University, for example, grew from 3,000 students in 1944 to more than 10,000 in 1946.
Now college administrators are looking at the inverse possibility. They’re scrapping plans for growth in service of public health. They’re moving operations online. Nobody wants to be the first to reopen, nor the first to say they’re going remote until 2021 or later. “A lot of places have the capacity to reopen in normal circumstances,” LeBlanc told me. “But we’re not going to flip a switch and go from ‘everyone shelter at home’ to ‘everybody go back to what you used to be doing three months ago.’”