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Here are 5 tips to stay safe at college during the pandemic.

USA TODAY

Perhaps the pandemic will reluctantly lead us to the difficult questions surrounding how to provide the best-quality affordable college experience.

There are multiple indicators suggesting that there may be too many Iowa colleges and universities.

At least 60 post-secondary colleges and universities are in a state of about 3 million people with an annual birth rate of 61,000. Those numbers suggest that Iowa has an excess capacity for post-secondary educational opportunities. The diffuse and generally fragmented post-secondary educational infrastructure in the state has provided many opportunities for students, but perhaps it’s time to consider whether it is a sustainable system.   

Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it is becoming clearer that major institutional change is likely to occur in higher education. Short of some medical miracle, it is likely that the virus will persist for the foreseeable future. It is quite likely that the virus has exacerbated already existing trends. Already there are signs of institutional financial stress: reductions in state appropriations, furloughs, layoffs, and early retirement programs to reduce costs.

For years, there has been intense competition for the dwindling numbers of Iowa high school graduates. As colleges and universities saw state and federal financial support decline, a larger portion of their total operating budget relied upon student tuition, so they sought to expand enrollments to stabilize their budgets. This has led to aggressive recruitment for out-of-state students, non-traditional students, or for those seeking advancement. The emergence of online degree programs and electronic colleges has placed even more stress on the traditional brick and mortar colleges to maintain enrollments. The lingering threat of COVID-19 may make online education a more attractive option, and with some students postponing traditional post-secondary degrees, it raises the question: Do we need all these institutions?

The institutional response thus far has been approaching the pandemic as a crisis as college and university administrators have sought CDC and Department of Public Health guidance on how to safely resume face-to-face classes. As might be expected, there are varying degrees of success in the response. We are observing mixed results from these extraordinary and often expensive adaptations to the new campus environment. 

Just as the pandemic has required new models and methods of safety to deliver post-secondary education, the institutional restructuring among colleges and universities will persist for years. Following the stages generally found in responses to a crisis or a shock, the reaction in higher education was to marshal existing resources to address the emergency. However, we argue that as the pandemic moves from a crisis to a long-term chronic situation, it is time to move from a crisis response to a more deliberate longer-term vision and plan for higher education in the state.   

Often, critics of higher education blame mission creep as the root of the problem of too many institutions offering too many courses. However, the case can be made that the metrics of individual institutional success have created an unsustainable system.  Duplication of specialized programs is often viewed as wasteful and inefficient, though they provide students with options and choices. However, college and university leaders’ careers have generally been rewarded based upon student enrollment and budget growth.  Larger enrollments, new buildings, alumni support, improved rankings, and of course larger budgets were indicators of success and prestige.

The proliferation of courses and programs often reflects the bias inherent in the facade of growth. More students, larger faculties, bigger revenue streams, higher graduation rates, and expanded course offerings were the drivers of what some would call an over-built and expensive system of post-secondary education.  Many small colleges are located in towns that are rightfully proud and they will defend their local colleges because they are an important part of the social fabric and an essential employer of residents. Often parents like the option of their children remaining close to home after high school or they want their children to attend a church-related school of their faith tradition.   

Perhaps the pandemic will reluctantly lead us to the difficult questions surrounding how to provide the best-quality affordable college experience. Rather than narrowly gauging institutional success based upon enrollment growth, a more enlightened approach might be to raise the question: What is a meaningful college experience?  

Perhaps there are better models of institutional collaboration and cooperation that might involve public-private initiatives to ensure a well-trained workforce and enlightened citizenry. Perhaps the COVID-19 experience will result in asking the tough questions, such as, can we afford 60 colleges and universities? Perhaps state and federal incentives can be crafted to encourage greater collaboration and cooperation among these institutions that often seek public financial support.  

It’s time to move from viewing COVID-19 as a crisis to accepting it as an ongoing chronic condition that will inform and help shape how we deliver post-secondary education to the next generation. 

Paul Lasley is professor of sociology at Iowa State University. Maynard Hogberg is emeritus professor of animal science at ISU. Mark Rasmussen is director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU. Hank Harris is emeritus professor of animal science at ISU. The views expressed are solely personal opinions and should not be interpreted as representing Iowa State University. 

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