Perhaps only one: higher education.
Since its founding in 1636, time and again, American higher education has proven its resiliency and extraordinary value. We’ve faced myriad challenges through the years.
In recent years, we’ve faced predictions that the best education would soon be totally online and cost nothing. Online learning has only enhanced higher education, not replaced it. Also, it costs someone a fair amount of money to provide. It is not free and never has been.
There has also been systematic rhetoric claiming decreased value and relevancy of a college degree. However, just this year, the Brookings Institution reported an undeniable fact: On average, college graduates can earn twice that of high school grads over their lifetimes — almost $2 million more. College grads also generally enjoy better health, file fewer disability claims and sustain higher levels of employment during economic downturns. Earning higher degrees only increases these benefits. The present and projected demand for baccalaureate-degreed professionals has perhaps never been greater.
COVID-19 is the latest threat to higher education—that is, if we permit it to paralyze us. Moving to online delivery early in the pandemic was the right decision. We’ve learned a lot in a short time about how to continue our work and protect students, employees and the public. We should not waste that valuable knowledge, nor ignore what we will continue to learn this summer.
Planning for a worst-case scenario is wise, and nearly every college administration is doing just that. However, we thrive more and develop more breakthrough solutions when we are optimistic.
COVID-19 is serious, but neither university leaders nor the public should allow it to incapacitate us. Let’s see the glass as half-full, not half-empty. Many educational leaders have hopeful intentions to reopen campuses this fall. Unless there is overwhelming evidence of nonstop infection growth, our hope is to return to normal, even if it’s a new normal.
One college president says she is cautiously optimistic; most seem to feel similarly. To best balance public health with economic interests, we should return to a normal with new realities. Neither can override the other for protracted periods. We must manage both.
Right now, our top priority is rightly the welfare of students, employees and our friends and neighbors. We are concerned that people have died, businesses are suffering and many families have lost income because of layoffs and furloughs.
We will do all we can to protect our population, preserve jobs for our employees and help families afford to keep sons and daughters in college. We want to take every reasonable step to facilitate the shared goal of returning to the greatest measure of “normal” we can achieve, as quickly as we can achieve it.
This new “normal” is what I believe Gov. Henry McMaster’s forward-thinking “accelerateSC” task force aims to facilitate. It’s described as a “coordinated economic revitalization plan involving small and large business owners, leaders in manufacturing, health care, education and government,” working together to get South Carolina back to work rebuilding our economy and building our future. Higher education is central to it all.
In considering whether campuses should open, we cannot overlook the economic value and public good of higher education. Fifty-nine nonprofit, four-year colleges and universities represent a huge part of South Carolina’s economic engine. Annually, we educate more than 290,000 students, most from right here in South Carolina. We graduate more than 50,000 individuals who become workers and taxpayers. We employ approximately 44,000 individuals whose compensation totals more than $3.3 billion.
Every year, our collective economic impact on South Carolina is approximately $5.8 billion. Adding in 16 technical and community colleges, the numbers are even more staggering. And, contrary to popular myth, though nonprofit colleges and universities generally don’t pay property and income taxes, we pay almost every other tax, just like businesses.
In all candor, if we cannot fully open our campuses to traditional students this fall, the strength and survivability of our colleges and universities is at risk, and, with it, South Carolina’s economy. Opening our campuses to only a portion of our students is not financially viable. Moreover, the prospect of a full semester totally online is not likely to be attractive to today’s traditional students.
All of our nonprofit schools exist to serve the public good — today, tomorrow and forever. We cannot financially imperil our institutions, yet expect them to be resourced properly to pick up in 2021 where they left off in mid-spring 2020. That doesn’t serve the public good; it undermines it.
And it’s not just about missing out on tuition and fees! It’s about educating students and the necessary long-term health and viability of all but the most heavily resourced universities in the state.
We also cannot ignore the serious shortages of professionals. Nurses, engineers, public school teachers, physical therapists, pharmacists, physicians, scientific researchers, cyber security experts — all are urgently needed.
Delaying students’ education and training will only worsen the situation and erode South Carolina’s professional capital and ability to meet its citizens’ most basic and critical needs.
Indeed, South Carolina’s future, in great part, hinges on uninterrupted education and training of professionals and technicians. All institutions will no doubt respect the governor’s guidance and adhere to legal mandates, but we are eager to resume our urgent missions. We want to open this fall, and to open strongly.
Opening strongly means that we take what we’ve learned about this virus and how it can be managed and apply it to our campuses. We are implementing and sharing best practices even now.
While none of us is in complete control of the circumstances, clearly there are many things we can do to reasonably and responsibly protect our campuses and communities through controlled risk. This is a time for all in higher education to collaborate and share information. We are learning from one another and from public health experts. We have time to prepare.
As we communicate with students, we hear continuously that they miss their friends and professors. They miss face-to-face interaction, studying together, worshiping together, competing in athletics, being in musical and theatrical events and student government. And they miss rich learning and living experiences on a campus alive with kinetic energy and animated creativity.
That’s especially true at Anderson, where a close-knit family atmosphere is embedded in a campus culture that students refer to as their “home away from home.” For this reason, we have more students than ever who have indicated their desire to launch their college careers at AU, and we will be prepared to welcome them.
Opening strongly means one more thing: We have to be realistic. Until a vaccine is developed, there will be rising and receding waves of infections. We must manage that the best we can.
In this balancing of public health and our economy, we should acknowledge what experience with COVID-19 has already taught us — that most traditionally aged college students impacted develop only mild symptoms. Still, they must rigidly limit their close contact with older adults and those with underlying risk factors. We can discipline ourselves to do that.
Meanwhile, we all hope and pray for a reliable, approved treatment and vaccine sooner than later.
For now, COVID-19 will likely challenge our state for months to come. But for almost four centuries, American higher education has risen to challenges. We can and will do it again. Think about it: Just a few weeks ago, when abruptly faced with closing campuses and shifting to online delivery of coursework, none of our South Carolina colleges and universities were unsuccessful. That’s resiliency. When circumstances demand it, we have a track record of reinventing and adapting.
With South Carolinians’ support, whatever the challenges we may have this fall, we can adapt, manage and help South Carolina rebound to thrive once again.
*The author acknowledges with appreciation the contributions of other South Carolina independent college and university presidents to these ideas.
Evans Whitaker has been president and professor of management at Anderson University since 2002. He holds a Ph.D. in education and human development from Vanderbilt University. He is currently vice chair of the S.C. Tuition Grants Commission. He is a past member of the S.C. Higher Education Commission, past chair of the S.C. Independent Colleges & Universities Council of Presidents, founder of the South Carolina School of the Arts, and the longest-serving private university president in the Palmetto State.