There is a growing consensus that COVID could destroy higher education as we know it,  making colleges and universities a less significant part of society. 

But this is unlikely. First, universities are large employers, and oftentimes, the largest employers in a community. Second, there is still a desired status affiliated with high caliber institutions. You hate Harvard, but you’d be thrilled if you kid got accepted there. 

Third, college campuses are still one of the best ways young adults can learn, mature, and grow. Fourth, higher education can foster an unrivaled sense of kinship and community. 

Academic institutions will undoubtedly be financially squeezed. Nonetheless, it’s time universities take a mindfulness class and redirect their purpose. Even amidst a pandemic, schools should re-examine their use of resources and restructure their missions to better prepare students for a daunting and unpredictable future.

Here are a few suggestions.  

Redirect endowment assets towards building local communities

University endowments in the United States hold roughly $1.5 trillion in assets, with the top five (Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, and MIT) holding a quarter of that. Academic institutions think they are making sound financial management decisions, but they are missing out on investments with better returns. 

A number of these schools are in areas with deepening inequality, crumbling public schools, rising home prices, and rampant crime (there is a joke at Stanford, based in Palo Alto, that East Palo Alto is so dangerous even the cops don’t go there).

Universities can direct their funds toward building more advancement opportunities for low-income students, help build local schools, and share resources with the local community. There is no doubt that some have undertaken such projects, but they can do more. For example, Ohio State University has an endowment of $5.3 billion yet contributes 0.001% to the local community (Lebron James alone donates more to Columbus than OSU). Universities can and should mobilize capital in impact initiatives such as ed-tech, clean technology, building community centers, entrepreneur loans in underserved communities, and other impact investing funds.

These types of allocations are not charity. Prominent research has shown that capital allocated to community initiatives, capital deprived areas, emerging technology, sustainable solutions, and impact investments overall produce greater gains than traditional investments.

Mandate Study Abroad and Increasing Cross-Cultural Exchange Programs

In the midst of a pandemic, people are turning away from the idea of going overseas. The number of Americans possessing a passport has been on a downward trajectory even before the emergence of COVID-19 (from a peak in 2018). A study commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations found Americans feel they have little to learn from other nations.

These are all dangerous trends. Walling ourselves off from the rest of the world is a recipe for ignorance, xenophobia and much, much shittier food. More importantly, we surrender opportunities to share and learn best practices from education, technology, science, and culture.

It’s best to hook young minds into the world at an early age.

Colleges should mandate that all students study abroad for one year (when this becomes logistically feasible). They should establish partnerships with foreign institutions to bring in more foreign students. These networks can help reduce fees by pooling student administrative costs.

For those skeptical that this might work, I point to America’s graduate programs. Today, foreign students make up forty-eight percent of science and engineering graduate programs, and an even higher percentage in places like Texas, Arkansas, and West Virginia. The top business schools in the world all have an extremely diverse set of students. A number of these institutions have set up workplace programs that allow students to get real life experience while lowering their tuition burden.

A year away can provide students time to pivot out of their bubble and have a meaningful experience. It can also be a chance to gain a deeper appreciation of other cultures and, perhaps, their own.

Mandate College Swaps

As much as we need the younger generation to understand the world, we need them to also gain a better understanding of the country they live in. Colleges should require students to study at other institutions for a semester or a summer. We need a kid from Berkeley to understand Baton Rouge. And a kid from Birmingham to experience the Bay Area. Our rage and antipathy for others, just based on where they live, is troubling. As someone with two degrees, a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) license, and a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, the best education I had was living in different cities. Assumptions and perceptions aren’t challenged from afar. We should spark the next generation’s curiosity and acceptance of others early and often.  

A year and a half away might seem costly and excessive. But if the academic institution’s core purpose is readying students for the real world, increased exposure into the unknown is a must. Jobs are unlikely to be in the communities where students graduate. Another great recession colliding with shifts in workplace culture, globalization, and automation will force many to be on the move. Many will have to re-build their career multiple times and deal with far more uncertainty than during a financially stable period.

Colleges owe it to their students to prepare them for what is to come. 

Mandate national service as part of the four year curriculum

When we are free to resume “normal” life there will be plenty of work to do: contact tracing, sanitizing public places, solving food shortages, feeding the hungry, supporting the elderly, taking temperatures at public gatherings, supporting local government agencies, maintaining public areas, installing touchless sensors etc. Not all of it will be glamorous, but most of it will be crucial. 

And Gen Z will be willing to pitch in. Despite being blamed for everything under the sun, Gen Z’s idealism has translated into actual service. As David Brooks from the New York Times notes, “There is now a vast army of young people ready and yearning to serve their country. There are college graduates emerging into a workplace that has few jobs for them. There are more high school graduates who suddenly can’t afford college. There are college students who don’t want to return to a college experience. This is a passionate, idealistic generation that sees the emergency, wants to serve those around them and groans to live up to this moment.”

We shouldn’t let the energy and idealism go to waste. Colleges can easily facilitate opportunities through existing networks for college newbies to do good. Internships and work study programs that might be slashed from the budget can be revived. This will also be a win for students. As noted, many are already eager to take up these takes. Volunteer work can also give a sense of higher duty and understanding of strong communities. 

The systematic inequality, faux meritocracy in the admission process, and bloated price won’t change overnight. Nor will their lackluster approach to integrating online learning (or fighting it). In fact, a lot of these plans I outlined may not make a dent in any of these structural problems. 

But higher education must chart a new path. The quest for knowledge should be challenging, but universities have placed the wrong hurdles in front of students. It’s time they rethink their approach to maturing the minds of the next generation.

Villainizing them won’t do any good. We can utilize their enormous infrastructure for better. As any teacher would tell you, progress only begins when you actually start trying to change. 

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