The coronavirus could kill off a host of US colleges

By Michael Barone (NY Post) April 19, 2020 | 5:50pm

Some of America’s most beautiful spaces, our university campuses, are closed and empty these days. Schools have canceled their spring semesters and commencements because of COVID-19; classrooms, dormitories and athletic facilities are shuttered.

Some institutions tell students that they can continue to access instruction online. But exams and grades have been canceled in many cases. One suspects online viewership will be sporadic, concentration light.

But students shouldn’t hover around their home mailboxes waiting for an envelope with a tuition-rebate check. And students — and parents —who expect campuses to reopen this fall, next spring or the fall after that may be in for surprise and disappointment.

American higher education has been in serious and growing trouble in the past two decades. Yes, our science and technology departments lead the world, and the social-sciences and humanities departments still boast some brilliant scholars.

But at some point, too much of a good thing stops being a good thing. People have observed for years that college graduates make more money over their lifetime than non-college graduates. But it doesn’t follow that people not headed to college will make money if they go there.

A dismaying number of American college freshmen never end up graduating, not after four or six or 20 years. An even more dismaying number of nongraduates and graduates end up with daunting amounts of college debt, nondischargeable in bankruptcy, which reduces or prevents significant wealth accumulation. Americans today have more college debt than credit-card debt.

And for what? In his new book, “The Breakdown of Higher Education,” John Ellis, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, cites multiple studies showing that half of graduates make no intellectual gains. Many schools don’t teach the basics of US history or government. College degrees aren’t so much evidence of learning as of plodding persistence.

And a willingness to put up with left-wing agitprop. American universities keep grinding out more PhDs (writing theses no one may ever read) than they have tenure-track teaching jobs so that an increasing number accept hourly wages as adjuncts and look forward to increases in the minimum wage.

Meanwhile, administrators now outnumber teachers at many institutions. Many spend their time in meetings and conferences promoting “equity, inclusivity and diversity.” Some spend time enforcing speech codes prohibiting free expression that colleges and universities at one time fostered.

Others are occupied in regulating adult students’ social behavior, conducting kangaroo courts in which those accused of sexual harassment or assault are denied any presumption of innocence, the ability to call witnesses and knowledge of any charges.

The notion that adults, who are eligible to vote and serve in the military, need such guidance is rooted in the Latin phrase in loco parentis, the notion that students at residential colleges need something like parental supervision, even if that supervision is irksome and increasingly expensive.

The fact is that the residential college, the model of American higher education since its 17th-century foundations, is the exception rather than the rule in most of the world. University students typically live in parental homes or with roommates in cheap nearby apartments. That’s true of most undergraduates in Britain, where Cambridge and Oxford and their beautiful quads were the models for Harvard and William & Mary.

For the 100 or so selective colleges, the residential-college model will continue to be profitable. But even Harvard, with its $37 billion endowment, saw fit to lay off hundreds of subcontracted campus dining-hall workers.

Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of lesser-known schools, whose graduates never get interviews with Goldman Sachs, may be thrust into bankruptcy if the perceived need for social distancing closes classrooms or reduces enrollments.

As Heather Mac Donald writes in City Journal, “Students and their parents may start to ask why they should pay astronomical fees for a campus experience if they can get the same instruction over the Web.”

And perhaps some college and university administrators will ask whether they can somehow cut back on administrative bloat, especially if the alternative is figuring out some other use for beautiful but suddenly obsolete campuses.