Empty college campus. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Articles describing the destruction in the education world have been noticable to me over the last several weeks. Most of the articles have discussed the devastation in primary and secondary education.

Here are a few articles describing disruption in higher education:

  • Alternatives to traditional non-campus higher education are growing.
  • What might a post-covid higher education world look like? One scenario.
  • Lots of class-action suits against colleges for refunds are getting dismissed.

3/2/21 – TaxProf Blog – The Rise Of The Mega-University – For several years the big on-line universities have seen dramatic expansion in enrollment. School such as Southern New Hampshire, Liberty, Grand Canyon, and Western Governors University have seen explosive growth in the last four or five years.

Graph illustrating the point shows Southern New Hampshire University has grown from 20,000 Students in 2013 to about 90,000 in 2017.

The schools are far larger than that the article describes as the “top 14 universities.”

I will guess the pandemic has helped the on-line schools grow while the in-person universities see collapsing enrollment.

As a further no-so-wild guess, I will speculate that divergence will continue after the pandemic ends. Why pay the massive cost to be on-campus and give up four years of earnings when you could pay lower cost, stay home, continue working, and get your degree on a part-time basis?

3/21/21 – Wall Street Journal op-ed – The Future of US Higher Education: A few Stars, Many Satellites – Author reflects on his exposure to the Harvard environment over the last seven decades. He sees four threats to the higher education model as it currently exists:

  • “The Internet” – The University model of students gathered at the feet of a professor dispensing wisdom in person has been around for about 950 years. New technology (that means Zoom or similar) might finally disrupt that.
  • “Extreme leftism” – ‘nuf said.
  • “Exorbitant prices” – Tuition and fees alone run $64,380 at Columbia University. Per year. Housing is on top. One wag points out this is turning higher education into a “caste system” for the very, very privileged.
  • “Covid-19” – Danger to physical safety endangers the whole on-campus model. Eventually students will be back on campus but there will be ongoing disruption. The same wag points out that a $50,000 per year streaming service for classes just does not make sense.

How might the disruption settle out?

Author points to one particular class at Yale which draws one fourth of the entire campus. The next course starting on 3/27 will have total audience participation (or perhaps it is cumulative tally) of 3.4 million.

One possible future is a few star universities survive while all the rest of the universities wither away. He paints a picture of perhaps 50 mega-universities thriving, each with a very distinct outlook and personality. The other 5,300 colleges and universities across the country will fail and then emerge as a satellite campus where students will actually gather for whatever in-person experiences they choose to buy.

Economies of scale would kick in with only needing to have enough media savvy, charismatic, engaging professors to staff 50 institutions along with tens of thousands of grad assistants to lead local breakout sessions. Mass quantities of professorial and administrative positions would not be needed.

Hmm. Extend that out a bit – what is today a standalone university with a humongous campus could eventually convert one large building into the Harvard satellite, another building serving as the Yale satellite campus, and another for all the Hillsdale College students, and another for Biola.

Next thought would be higher education structured and priced on a-la-carte basis. Everyone pays a low price for the actual learning which is all streamed. Those who want some of the in-person interaction could pay for commuting to a campus and sitting in a classroom to watch the video feed. Those who want the immersive experience could pay for on-campus housing. Those who want to see great collegiate football or basketball live could pay even more to attend whichever campus is hosting the Patriot’s or Buccaneer’s or Laker’s farm team.

Interesting scenario, huh?

2/10/21 – JD Supra – Universities Win Dismissals of Class Actions Seeking Tuition Refunds – There are more than 250 class-action lawsuits against colleges and universities because of the pandemic shutdowns. Claims are for partial or full refund of tuition, fees for on-campus activities, and room & board.

Article indicates some institutions are giving partial refunds for room and board. Apparently few are giving refunds for tuition.

In the week prior to the article, two class-action suits were dismissed in the pleading stage. In logic only an attorney would enjoy, one case was dismissed because there is not an enforcable promise of providing in-person activities. Enrollment at a college, with physical campus, with classes conducted on campus, with intentions to attend said on-campus classes does not create a promise that you will be on campus.

The other case was dismissed in part for the lack of written promises and also for lack of standing. Yes, the parents who wrote the check to the college for their children to attend on-campus do not have standing to file a lawsuit. That means they have no legal interest in the case. Like I said, only an attorney will enjoy and appreciate that logic.

Article says the lawsuits which have a case theory of breach of contract, unjust enrichment, or conversion are surviving challenges for dismissal.

Those cases are moving forward. Cases based on breach of contract are tending to not survive initial defense challenge.

Oh, cases structured on the legal theory of providing a lower quality education are not surviving initial defense challenge. The concept here is universities have broad discretion on how they deliver classes. Higher quality or lower quality does not matter; it is their choice.

As a non-attorney who doesn’t understand the legal pleadings, nor who has looked beyond news coverage, it seems to me a lot of the class-action suits are going to fail while a number of them are going to keep moving forward, likely to successful results.


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