Flimflam: College in 2020

Higher education institutions are engaging in a very American tradition regarding reopening in the fall, with students and parents as the easy marks, Ryan Craig argues.

July 10, 2020
 
 
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So many things have gone missing this summer: Fourth of July parades, fireworks, summer camps and, as we approach the dog days, state fairs. Last summer I took my kids to the Oregon State Fair, where they sampled deep-fried bacon on a stick and failed to appreciate just how bizarre it is that people make sculptures out of dairy products.

As we paraded up and down the midway and ogled the deceptively difficult carnival games, I regaled them with stories of the carnies, roustabouts and flimflam men who ran the games and booths and -- in their spare time -- confidence tricks. The term “mark” -- literally a big spender marked with powdered chalk on the shoulder -- comes from carnies and leads to this invaluable life lesson: always leave the mark a dollar for gas (so he can get home instead of being stuck -- angry -- at the fair).

The story of every mark who encounters a flimflam man is a carnival version of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. First, the flimflam man approaches the mark. Second, temptation, followed by a small payoff to demonstrate the scheme’s purported effectiveness. Third, the hard sell to go all in. Finally, a sudden unanticipated crisis or change of events that results in a complete loss.

Millions of college students are now on this sucker’s journey. College students and their families are perfect marks. They’re told a degree is the only pathway to good jobs. After a remote spring and summer best characterized by the great They Might Be Giants lyric “If it wasn’t for disappointment/I wouldn’t have any appointments,” they’re primed for the temptation of a return to campus and normalcy.

Parents are equally excited at the prospect of getting kids out of the house. Anti-pandemic panegyrics from Purdue University’s president on Plexiglas and the Protect Purdue Pledge promise a payoff this fall. But once students and families are all in, the payoff will turn to pain before pumpkins begin appearing on porches.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 62 percent of colleges and universities are, as of this writing, welcoming students back to campus, and 21 percent are planning a hybrid model. Only 8 percent of institutions will start the fall semester online only.

Meanwhile, with depressing summer dispatches on COVID-19 outbreaks at campuses such as the University of Georgia, University of South Carolina, University of Washington and Louisiana State University, it’s clear higher education institutions stand about as much chance of enforcing masks and social distancing as alcohol consumption and abstinence.

Look no further than the COVID-19 parties at University of Alabama, where students bet on who’d contract the disease first. As Temple University’s Laurence Steinberg wrote in The New York Times, “interventions designed to diminish risk taking in this age group … have an underwhelming track record.” Faculty are afraid; 53 percent of Purdue faculty and staff report feeling unsafe about returning to campus this fall. And they’re unlikely to feel better when asked to sign waivers of liability for risks including “but not limited to, illness, severe bodily harm, and death.”

Most dispassionate observers now recognize that return-to-campus plans are, as Juliana Gray wrote in McSweeney’s, cooked up by your university’s “Vice President for Magical Thinking”: “our university has always valued creative problem-solving, so we have posted NO COVID-19 ALLOWED PAST THIS POINT signs on the doors of every campus building. Plus, to show how seriously we take the situation, the signs have been laminated … When they arrive on campus, all students will receive a welcome package containing a face mask branded with our university logo, a rabbit’s foot, a horseshoe, an evil-eye charm, a Maneki-neko, a crucifix, and a bulb of garlic.”

So when the number of cases is undeniable (which may make the viral load higher on college campuses than anywhere else in the country -- no small matter for a disease where infection appears to be a function of viral load) there will be no choice but to revert to remote learning. Not even President Trump is capable of spouting the flawed premises and twisted logic that has made my college classmate Alex Berenson (who used to be less of a Nazi) famous over the past few months: that every single person who is vulnerable to COVID-19 has some underlying condition and is likely to meet his or her maker sooner than later.

It’s the stuff of eugenics and self-styled Übermensches like Berenson. And no college presidents -- not even Jerry Falwell Jr. -- will get away with this nonsense when they’re surrounded by science faculty and researchers who know a lot more about this disease than Berenson and other “experts” without any STEM training. The alt-right argument seems more and more like a plot by the healthy (which increasingly means wealthy) to kill the less healthy, akin to history’s darkest flimflams.

I know optimism is not only in short supply for parents and students, but also the towns many colleges and universities support. But as @profgalloway has pointed out, optimism is one thing. It’s quite another when a “CEO in the midst of a disastrous earnings call … demonstrates near-delusional optimism so investors don’t sell shares.”

Given that most presidents apparently lack confidence in social distancing plans, and schools like Cornell have gone so far as to delude themselves (justifying a return to campus by comparing COVID spread in a fantasy compliant campus model with a students-gone-wild-at-home scenario), optimism for fall falls into the latter category. It’s a slow-motion car crash. As higher education experts like Seton Hall’s Robert Kelchen recognize, colleges “are postponing the inevitable. But that dam will have to break soon. Then come the big hits.”

The interplay between optimism and flimflam is the story of America. For every Lewis and Clark, there’s a Bernie Madoff. Visionaries like Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs thrived in the limbo between already-sold sizzle and the harsh reality of product development. We’re a country built on big bets leading to world-beating innovation, but also -- it is now clear -- world-leading failure. Our highs are higher, and our lows are lower. (The flip side of audacity is our inability to take direction like social distancing and mask wearing. We stopped following instructions in 1776 and never looked back.)

One unfortunate byproduct of American exceptionalism is our susceptibility to storytelling flimflam men. Without marks, there would be fewer Edisons and Jobses -- who made dreams come true -- and no Trump, who did the same, except with nightmares; biological and behavioral crises like COVID-19 aren’t susceptible to “art of the deal” fixes.

Fittingly, the Trump administration ruled this week that international students could not remain in the country on student visas to attend programs that are wholly remote. As a result, Trump is forcing schools like Harvard and Princeton to promise in-person elements, furthering the flimflam and turning thousands of universities into Trump University.

***

Rather than elaborately and expensively planning for a carnival-like bait and switch that will anger millions of customers and set the marginalization of American higher education at warp speed, colleges and universities should have been putting all their time and resources into:

No. 1: Dramatically Improving Remote Learning

Who’ll really be hurt when colleges and universities send students home in September or October? Students for whom life is most likely to get in the way: low-income, underrepresented minority and first-generation populations who most need the leg up promised by postsecondary education. According to a Brookings study, taking courses online increases the probability of dropping out. Another study found each online course produced dropout rates 10 to 20 percent higher than on-campus courses; over a semester or two, that adds up to a huge persistence gap.

Susan Dynarski from the University of Michigan summarized the research: “for advanced learners, online classes are a terrific option, but academically challenged students need a classroom with a teacher’s support.” Spring 2020 withdrawals from California Community Colleges (online) courses were 17 percent higher than spring 2019. And that doesn’t include 2,000 students in “hard-to-convert” classes like nursing because courses were simply canceled.

Compounding the challenge is that at the vast majority of colleges and universities, it won’t be a reversion to state of the art online learning, but still remote learning. Susan Grajek of Educause, the association of education technologists, distinguishes remote learning from “well-considered, durable online learning.” Remote learning, she said, is a “quick, ad hoc, low-fidelity mitigation strategy.” Remote learning lacks instructional design that prioritizes engagement, organization, navigation, assessment and purpose -- all major contributors to student persistence and completion.

With leadership focused on success rather than snake oil, much more could have been done: adding instructional design so students in need of support stand a chance of actually learning something and completing; transforming courses to active learning; scaling up online partnerships and critical online support services. Jeff Selingo asked the question trustees should have been asking since April: “should all that energy, time, and money … spent on preparing for the fall instead [have been] spent on trying to improve remote learning, which for many colleges this spring was subpar?”

No. 2: Securing and Offering Tuition Insurance

Many colleges and universities offer tuition insurance, but plans like GradGuard don’t cover “foreseeable or expected events, epidemics, [or] cession of operations by the school.” It’s unbelievable that not one higher education institution has done the work of contacting an insurance company and devising a new plan specific to COVID-19, which would allow students to recoup tuition paid in the event the campus is closed and students wish to opt out rather than paying for remote learning. Thousands of trustees who’ve made their fortunes in the finance industry have been asleep at this switch, among many. Of course, the hardest part would have been marketing such plans and watching the scales fall from students’ eyes.

No. 3: Reducing Expenses in Order to Provide Discounts

The wealthiest colleges and universities can afford to provide discounts, although Williams’s 15 percent discount for 2020-21 still leaves total cost of attending at a laughable $63,200. Students want and expect to pay less for remote learning -- 90 percent of them, according to a recent survey. But I’m not aware of a single college or university that has attempted to get its fiscal house in order to provide discounts for remote learning. That would entail hard work, and the internal squabbles and food fights attendant to zero-based budgeting. Failure to even make the attempt is indicative of higher education’s continuing crisis of governance.

***

When infection rates reach undeniable and untenable levels this fall and most colleges and universities revert to remote learning while continuing to charge full freight, including perhaps for room and board, as the University of South Florida and Washington State plan to do, the confidence trick will be complete. (Some schools may try remote teaching before sending students home -- students in classrooms, faculty teaching synchronously and safely from a distance -- but remote teaching is only plausible if students are kept in an impossibly impregnable bubble.

And no city, town or public health department will tolerate a seeping cesspool of virus in their community.) Colleges will try to hang their hats on surprise and lack of agency. But -- particularly after the lost spring -- students will see through the flimflam and be as angry as any mark ever was. Fool me once, shame on you (and class action suits). Fool me twice …

When millions of marks get angry, events can spiral out of control. In the late 1990s, the government of Albania endorsed a series of investment funds that were actually Ponzi schemes paying monthly interest of 10 to 25 percent. In early 1997 the funds were no longer able to make payments, sparking protests and violence. Victims beat police, burned public buildings and engaged in widespread looting. The chairman of Albania’s Democratic Party was assaulted by protesters and held hostage. Foreign countries were forced to evacuate their citizens. The national unrest -- sometimes referred to as the Albanian Civil War -- ultimately required an Italian-led United Nations force of 7,000 soldiers to subdue.

Rather than risking civil war, colleges and universities would be wise to end the flimflam now. Shockingly, the University of Southern California -- the poster child for contemporary higher education greed -- has done exactly this, announcing last week that fall would be online and urging students to “reconsider living on or close to campus.”

For the majority of institutions with unstoppable momentum to return to campus, consider the example of Fitness by the Sea beach camp. After many delays by Los Angeles County, Fitness by the Sea finally opened in socially distant mode on Monday, June 22. That very night, Fitness by the Sea emailed parents to let them know they had “a very difficult time keeping campers within the groups distanced from each other and from the staff.” As a result, the camp was closing for the remainder of the summer and would immediately process refunds. “We very much look forward to moving past all of this and opening under better circumstances next summer.”

Camps that want to have a next summer, and colleges and universities that want to have a next year, won’t treat their customers like marks. If they do, even though the upcoming academic year will be remote, I suppose students will learn at least one thing: beware of flimflams.

Bio

Ryan Craig is author of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College and managing director at University Ventures.

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