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Guest Viewpoints

American Higher Ed in the Age of COVID-19

September 1, 2020
By: Alexander Mordoudack

Millions of students. Billions of dollars. Thousands of institutions and their communities. One imposing threat. The National Herald takes a look at how colleges and universities have elected so far to proceed with instruction and residency provisions, and what these unprecedented conditions might mean for Greek students.

The National Center for Education Statistics projects that in 2020 almost 20 million students will be attending postsecondary institutions in the United States; about 12 million of those are shown as registering to attend full time. However, as the 2020 Fall academic semester approaches, higher education institutions in the United States face great challenges and dilemmas as to safely reopening and inviting students to their campuses. In previous years, we would be anywhere from a week to ten days before the beginning of the Fall academic semester. We would also know the instruction methods chosen by each university and its schools for each offered class. In the age of COVID-19, things are less certain. As the situation stands today, Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative, which tracks academic reopening plans, notes that 970 out of 2,958 institutions have opted for either fully or primarily online course instruction, while 651 have opted for either fully or primarily in person instruction. Four hundred and fifty-seven colleges and universities will be adopting a hybrid method of mixed instruction, and more than 700 have yet to finalize their plans. Within individual universities, such as Harvard, different approaches are being taken by different schools. Additionally, some institutions have chosen to delay the beginning of the semester, in order to wait out recent spikes in reported COVID-19 cases. Others chose to begin the semester sooner, hoping that, by ending it before Thanksgiving, students’ travel and consequent potential virus spread will be reduced. To better appreciate the complexity of the situation consider that announcements of reopening plan reversals are a daily occurrence, and the advice that students should prepare for any and all plans to change at any time has become an administrative mantra.

If one were inclined to interpret the situation by following the money, the initial observation must surely be that there is much less to follow. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates the higher education industry’s revenues in 2017-2018 to be $671 billion ($409 billion at public institutions, $248 billion at private nonprofit institutions, and $13 billion at private for-profit institutions). In April, the American Council on Education argued to Congress for emergency funding to offset lost revenue and increased student financing needs to the tune of $46.6 billion, including the consequences of an estimated decline of 15% in enrollment for the now upcoming semester. (Among international students, the decline was estimated at 25%.) Students not registering are not paying either, but while tuition is the obvious loss of revenue, significant auxiliary revenues such as the ones generated by housing and dining services, bookstores and so on, contribute to the financial damage. Schools appear to be doing anything they can to reopen to the highest degree and as soon as the pandemic and local government decisions allow them to. They are referencing many students’ demands to return to campus and in-person instruction as a guiding incentive, though that note comes with an asterisk, as it also means that those institutions are not excited about the prospect of facing more or continued legal challenges questioning the cost of what has turned, to varying degrees, into an online education. Since the beginning of the shutdowns and the stay-at-home orders, dozens of universities, including Harvard, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Syracuse, and the University of Southern California have been named in lawsuits alleging that students are not benefiting from the resources of in-person instruction (academic equipment, libraries, networking, and socializing opportunities), and should receive refunds. While many students do mean that they want to return to campuses, many are also just saying that, while they are not allowed or made safe to, they shouldn’t be paying the same price as though they were. The communities of higher learning institutions also face similarly great challenges and dilemmas, especially in the case of smaller college towns, where local businesses are almost entirely dependent on students for their financial survival. (Importantly, many of these would be also the communities which should take additional care to prevent and control any spread of COVID-19, since their health infrastructure is not as developed as in bigger cities, and could be overwhelmed by the demands of an epidemic.) With the uncertainty about the complicated start (?) of the fall semester mirroring the uncertainty about the course of the pandemic itself, it is also useful to remember that college students enter into a multitude of financial contracts – and those deal in certainties. Many students have found out as much since they have been trying to get out of their residential leases, or to sublet their apartments in order to not incur unnecessary costs, either because they have chosen to defer enrollment due to COVID-19, or because their schools have moved classes online.

GREEK STUDENTS ABROAD AND IN THE U.S.

Thousands of students leave Greece every year to study abroad. According to the latest available data from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, 36,995 students from Greece are studying in other countries, with the total recording a slight decrease compared to the previous year (37,484 students). Even taking into account the inequalities in the world ranking of higher education institutions, but also the differences in the financial capabilities of the two countries, it is worth mentioning that the UK’s student population contributes to the global mobility of the student population the same percentage as Greece’s does (0.7%), while ‘exporting’ about 2,000 fewer students. The ten countries with the largest Greek student populations are – in descending order – the United Kingdom (10,025), Bulgaria (3,588), Cyprus (3,537), Germany (2,929), the Netherlands (2,517), France (2,307), Turkey (2,285), the United States (2,162), Italy (1,890), and Romania (959).

Obviously, the mobility of the student population is one of the enriching elements of the educational experience, directly offering cultural depth and plurality of insight into the teaching and socialization of students. It is similarly obvious that under current mobility restrictions and increased concerns, the moving abroad for studies runs into a number of problems for Greeks. In addition to the immediately concerned, i.e. students and their families, scholarship-granting institutions are well aware of the circumstances, as they receive thousands of relevant communications depicting what it means to individual students. The National Herald spoke to the Fulbright program, the Latsis Foundation, and the Onassis Foundation about the pandemic’s impact on their programs.

The Latsis Foundation does not offer scholarships to study in the United States, but its scholars study in Greece and elsewhere in Europe, with Christina Ataroglou, the foundation’s Programmes & Grants Officer, clarifying that for the next academic year the number of applications did not decrease, while the scholarships have finally been awarded for studies in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany. Ataroglou stressed that the main concern of the scholarship holders was the start date for their studies. Meanwhile, she says, they oppose the option of distance learning, claiming it will deprive them contact with their teachers and fellow students. "The other part that we've seen them being a little worried about is the fact that they may have a lockdown in the country they are going, or maybe they will not have the same access to the health system in the country to which they are going, and especially in the U.K. I think that this is a really concerning factor," Ataroglou commented, while asserting that the amount of scholarships will not be diminished if course teaching goes online, and saying that financial security can help students to address public health challenges with more confidence. In addition to those in Europe, the Onassis Foundation supports nearly 60 scholars whose studies are either in progress in the United States or are starting the next academic year, according to Stella Tatsi, the foundation’s director of the Scholarships Department. Talking to TNH, Tatsi said that Onassis scholars study in various states, such as New York, Georgia, New Jersey, California, and Massachusetts. According to Tatsi, both the postponement of the semester’s beginning, and online instruction of courses during the first months of the academic year are included in the solutions adopted by the universities where the foundation’s scholars study. In addition to public benefit foundations, and playing a leading role in the Greek-American educational community, is the Fulbright program, which is supported by the Department of Education and Cultural Affairs of the State Department. Speaking to TNH, Fulbright Executive Director in Greece, Artemis Zenetou, also noted universities’ different approaches to reopening, which affect scholars enrolled in study programs in the United States, adding that the majority of Fulbright's programs will begin in January 2021. Zenetou also commented on the program’s benefits for Fulbrighters, who enjoy special provisions regarding visas and travel requirements.

Some time ago the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it would return to the pre-quarantine model, under which students attending distance learning programs are not eligible for a student visa, since their presence in the country is not necessary. This provision’s suspension during stay-at-home guidelines was intended to keep in force the visas of those students who found themselves attending classes remotely solely due to the lockdowns, but its reinstatement was seen by some as the government pressuring universities to adopt models of in-person instruction, the pressure being associated with the billions of dollars associated with the approximately 1 million international students in the country. Things are still evolving, but following the mobilization of some universities against the initiative, international students can hold onto or obtain student visas, provided their program is not initially defined as a distance learning program, and the courses which are taught online do not exceed certain numbers. As to Greek students’ actual moves to the United States, government, state, and university travel guidelines can greatly increase required travel times, requiring them to quarantine both before and after arriving in the country, as many states have additional restrictions on travel within the United States, and some universities require negative diagnostic results and additional isolation periods before allowing students on campus.

In all, studying abroad, and especially in the United States, during the pandemic is an unexpected and undeniably complex experience, a study in and of itself. For the economy, the education system, the health system, and above all for the students, this study should also become a lesson.

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