The Future of US Colleges & Universities

Updated: Jun 11



Grant Calder has worked in College Consulting and Admissions Counseling for over 30 years and is Co-director of College Counseling at Friends' Central School in Philadelphia, where he also teaches American History and German. In the past, he has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University in Philadelphia, and the Middlesex and Choate boarding schools in New England. Additionally, he was a guest teacher at the Evangelisches Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster in Berlin, Germany. Grant has two children who are currently 12th graders and both "headed off" (whether actually or virtually) to college next Fall.

Recently, Grant agreed to have a series of Q&A webinars with us about everything that's going on in the U. S. landscape of colleges and universities, specifically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Here is the video recording, with text transcripts (edited for reading clarity) of the last of three webinars, hosted by Elizabeth Sawyer, CEO of Bennett International, streamed live on our Facebook page on Thursday, June 4th, 2020.


To start us off, what are you hearing? What are colleges talking about right now? How are things shaping up for the Fall semester?


Grant: Well, we're hearing a lot. We just get inundated with emails every day. Everybody is working extremely hard to try to plot a course. It seems as though there's a little bit of a breakout happening. Some very big places - the Cal State system in California, for example, which has almost half a million students, seems to have committed to mostly being online in the Fall. I can see why they might choose that because they are so big. So, in a certain sense, they have some insulation from competition. It's a big and very good system in many ways. They're probably not going to lose lots of kids by being online in the Fall.


But on the other hand, individual operations - freestanding private colleges and universities - are, by and large, hoping to have some kind of on-campus program. What that's going to look like exactly, they are trying to figure out. A lot of it will have to do with whether or not there are surges in cases of COVID-19 during the Summer, and interestingly, a group of colleges has been talking about this - what happens if they open, and their liability to cases of students getting sick. One of the things they're doing is testifying before a Congressional committee and asking for some protection from lawsuits that students and/or parents bring if kids go to college in the Fall and get sick. It's understandable that they want that protection. It seems not unreasonable to me that students and families would be asked to sign some kind of waiver that would say, "if I do get sick, I'm not going to sue the institution," and I don't know whether Congress will be much help or not. There are a lot of lawyers in Congress; it's hard to say what their response is going to be.


Some private colleges, and a number of public ones, are committed to being open. Some big public universities in the Southwest have said they're going to open as usual. Exactly how they're going to manage that varies a lot. I have heard some interesting cases - a small college in Ohio got in touch with me and said they were going to offer every student a single room for the cost of a double room. That suggests to me that they have some extra capacity and, in some ways, smaller colleges in more rural settings with more physical space might find that they have some advantages in coming up with creative ways to get kids on-campus in the fall and keep them spread out. I think the hope is that there can be at least some combination of on-campus time and online time.


A lot of places that I've been talking to and hearing from are thinking about starting a little earlier in August, skipping Fall break running up to Thanksgiving, having kids leave campus at Thanksgiving, maybe continue to finish up exams and projects and papers after that, and then shutting down the campus for a couple of months through what would be the typical cold and flu season. Then, trying to open up again for the Spring semester beginning sometime in February. That seems like a reasonable hope and a reasonable plan. Of course, what happens in between now and then will have a big impact on that.


There are a lot of parents out there with kids who have been accepted to schools for this Fall. They don't know what school is going to look like, but they do know what the tuition looks like. They're trying to make decisions with huge implications, given the amount of debt that students and families carry for higher education. Any advice, perspective, or reassurance to offer parents? Do parents even have to sign on the dotted line financially right now, given that schools haven't yet necessarily announced what they're going to be doing?



Grant: Colleges are, in this time frame (end of May into June), asking students and parents to sign documents saying that they're accepting financial aid packages that have been offered, and that they are, therefore, agreeing to pay for those financial aids and scholarships. But, billing doesn't usually happen until later in the Summer. Of course, that will be a very interesting situation. The Bursar's offices of all these colleges are going to be getting more attention and concerned folks headed in their direction than ever before!


I think it's completely reasonable for parents, especially those that have lost jobs and had major financial impacts as a result of COVID-19, to consider having children who were sensibly headed to some college or other this Fall, stay at home and take courses at a local community college next year, or at a local branch of a public university. That really makes sense, and there certainly has been some shifting around - from kids choosing from among the places they were admitted to, to instead attending places that are closer to home. They don't know how much, or when, they're going to be traveling. I think it's reasonable for families to make whatever decisions they need to make [right now], given their familial situations. Colleges will have to be understanding about that.


In my case, both of my kids are headed off to private colleges this year. In both cases, we received financial aid packages. I have already said, "yes, I accept those packages." I plan to go ahead and have the kids matriculate and whatever form that takes this Fall. They want to. Even if they have to be at home in the Fall, or if it's going to be starting little or earlier ending a little earlier, they're eager to go. I'm lucky enough that we can manage that, and I want to support the college. They're just like my school (Friend's Central). We're all private institutions trying to make our way through this incredible mess, and I hope that as many of us as possible can come out institutionally intact on the other end.


What kinds of changes in programming and curriculum do you foresee, either related to COVID-19 or because of natural evolution?



Grant: That's a great question. I was watching with great concern, in recent years, the striking drop in the number of students who are earning degrees in Humanities and Social Sciences. My field - History - has been just gutted. It's really shocking to me. The number of students in those degree programs over the past decade has dropped 30% or more, and that's understandable. Higher education is so expensive that people feel like they need to enroll in programs that are going to be directly employable and applicable in some way, where they can tangibly see the connection between a program and a job.

It's sad that we're losing interest in Humanities and Social Sciences. I'm afraid that the COVID-19 situation will potentially exacerbate that tendency because it's just going to make people even more conscious of how much they're spending on for what they're getting.


On the other hand, recently, I've also watched with concern that lots of small [rural] Liberal Arts colleges are struggling to fill seats across the country, but it's possible that COVID-19 might actually help them draw kids. Kids these days, by and large, want to be in big cities. It's an oversimplification, but not by much. And it could be that one of the results of COVID-19 will be that people will be less interested in being in the middle of big cities. Realtors are already noticing that people who live in big cities are thinking about maybe not continuing to live there. Urban campuses have been getting inundated with applicants recently, and it might be a positive outcome of this crisis that smaller campuses, with more space in smaller towns, with more opportunities to have socially distanced programs, with arrangements where kids will feel comfortable being on campus, might really end up being something that they can legitimately and convincingly offer that will help them bring kids back, which would be great.


Those small institutions - that's part of what makes them so effective. They can provide a unique personalized experience, and they have lots of room in which to do it, generally. I think that city schools will still be attractive to people, but it has occurred to me that COVID-19 could reverse that to some degree.


Elizabeth: That's very interesting because in the past you've spoken a lot about how, whereas at one time, the small Liberal Arts college was one of the signature products of the U.S, over the years, the preference has seemed to go towards urban campuses, to the point that that world of small Liberal Arts schools has actually really been suffering financially. Perhaps this pandemic is driving a certain population back out to the country.


Grant: Right. It's ironic, because when those colleges were created, most of them in the latter 19th century, part of their purpose was to get the kids who attended those colleges out of the noisy, dirty, dangerous, smoke-filled, disease-ridden cities, where they could so they could go and spend four years in bucolic settings, breathe fresh air, be surrounded by green scenery, and think big thoughts about whatever it was. It's interesting that now that we're in the middle of this pandemic, it may certainly get some people to think about the advantages of that small college setting that was part of why they were created in the first place.


College has long been kind of a great institution in this country that many most many kids aspire to, and obviously comes with a huge price tag. You've placed thousands of kids over the years, in different kinds of schools, in different economic points in our history. Influenced by where we sit right now in the midst of a pandemic, do you have any perspective on what you've seen as the greatest value - the ROI (return on investment) that kids get from this college experience?


Grant: Well, the ROI issue, obviously, is important. Lots of people have spent a lot of time trying to calculate what it is you get financially out of going to college over the course of a career. The data still shows that college, as expensive as it is for most students in the U.S, is worth it in a strictly financial sense - the investment really does pay off over the course of a career. Not necessarily right away, and the major does make a big difference.


So, accounting degrees or engineering degrees may be able to make higher salaries more quickly than others, but generally speaking, I think overall the data still shows that [the college experience itself is positive]. Certainly, the kids that I have worked with over the years have, almost without exception, been very happy that they went to college, wherever they went. They felt that it helped them to decide what they wanted to do, and how to take the next step in their career paths.

I also think that college is not for everyone. Even though I've been doing college counseling for a long time, I wasn't even committed to having my own children go to college, necessarily. My feeling was, if college makes sense for my kids, then great. I'll try to work it out to help them apply to places, get in, and make it work financially. I think we don't pay nearly enough attention to the fact that in this country, there are lots of great programs that are out there for kids for whom it doesn't necessarily make sense to go to college. There are lots of general training programs and skills training programs that, occasionally, I talk to some of my students about.


I think the college experience is it's an amazing opportunity for kids in this country because there are so many different kinds of places to go to. In most of the rest of the world, it's a pretty standard package - you go to the place that is near to you, the place you can get in based on your exam scores, the admissions process is usually pretty cut and dry. [In the U.S], there's just an extraordinary range of programs, packages, environments, and mixes of students and faculty. That's part of the that's what's kept me in College counseling and consulting - because it's just so much fun to introduce students and families to these places they've never heard of, places they never thought that they would consider going to, and finding that they're really excited about the possibilities.


Do you think that colleges, because they're going to be more in need of funding, are going to be less likely to accept transfers?



Grant: That's a good question. I don't think that there will be much change there. It would be hard to justify changing that policy. The whole theory of our community college system, for example, which is big across the country and a key piece of higher education, is that you can take some courses and transfer those to four-year institutions or complete a program at the community college level. I don't think that the current situation will have a big impact on that.


I think it will continue to be the case, more or less, that if you transfer from one college to another, that the college that grants you the degree eventually will expect you to do to have done at least half of your coursework at that institution, which seems fair, and has been the general principle for a long time. As far as APs (Advanced Placements) are concerned, I

don't think the number of kids who spend fewer semesters in college because they have enough AP credits to lop off a semester or a year is that high. I don't think it adds up statistically to a big piece of the puzzle for most institutions, so I don't think they'll feel the need to particularly target that piece of the college credit question.



For many colleges and universities, their Sports programs are a huge piece of their identity. That's a very important piece of the college experience for a lot of kids, and sometimes even something that makes it financially viable. What do you hear in terms of Sports programs?



Grant: That's complicated. I was an athlete in college, and it was a great part of the experience for me. I think it's one of the reasons I managed to get through college in four years. It really helped to structure the time that I did have, provided a part of my life that was very consistent, and was an outlet. College sports can be great. It can also be a full-time job, making it hard to be a student. So, there are different situations with respect to that.


We are hearing a lot from colleges and, particularly, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). The NCAA has been issuing statements that have tended to be in the category of pushing back, saying "no, we can't have Summer camps or large gatherings." It's going to have a big impact on Sports over the next few seasons. Certainly, It's having a big impact on recruiting. Kids weren't able to play most of their Spring seasons, but, as everybody else is, the athletes and the coaches are doing what they can. I just talked to a student yesterday who was with her coach here at my school, finishing putting together a video to send to some coaches at places where she hopes to compete, because obviously, the coaches aren't going out on the road and watching kids play.


It'll be interesting to see, especially for the big money sports, like football. It's hard to imagine that anybody's going to put 70,000 people in a stadium this Fall, so they might be playing games that are only televised, as some of the professional leagues in Europe are already doing. We just don't know how that's going to play out. I think that places that have already made commitments to kids, in terms of athletic scholarships, will honor those, but funding could be cut certainly to some programs going forward, and some programs may be cut.

Elizabeth: A follow-up question. You say, probably over time, some programs will be cut. Do you foresee a timeline for when we will see those changes take effect? This Fall, permanently, or...?


Grant: That's a good question. I don't, actually. It's very hard to tell. I think there will be changes, obviously - certainly for next semester. Probably, for the Spring semester, a lot of places will still look different. Beyond that, I think colleges will continue to make more use of some of the techniques that they are developing to try to deliver these academic programs to students, either remotely, or some combination of remotely and in-person. I think there are things that will come out of that, that people realize are useful and work well, and we will see more hybrid kinds of programming going on, which is a good thing.


I also think the temptation is to hope that things snap back - that once, somehow, the crisis has passed, everything will snap back to normal again. The effect on many institutions will be long-term - across years, decades. I think the impact will be felt over many years, sadly, and mostly not in a positive way.


Kids that have finished high school and are going on to college are in a better position.

I would hope to see every possible effort made to get primary and secondary schools open again - that, to me, is even more important than reinstating in-person college sessions.


For younger kids, it's just essential, not only for them but for their families, that they are in school.


Any reassurances or advice for parents?


Grant: I teach History, so I always feel as though I have an advantage in my life that people who haven't studied as much History don't, because I just constantly am thinking about all the historical parallels and differences between what we're experiencing now and in the past - and usually, it's reassuring.


You know, a century ago, a lot of kids in this country were only going to school for about three months a year. That was a school year. We have tremendously expanded the school year, but there's nothing absolute about the way we have it set up now. There are school districts around the country that now run all year with all sorts of "breaks" between "chunks". We're constantly experimenting. That's the great thing about our system: we don't have a system. There's just a plethora of colleges and schools all over the country doing things in different ways. I think that that variety will continue to spit out innovations, variations, and iterations that will then gradually be adopted more broadly and help us, as they have in the past, to be resilient and adjust to changing conditions.


So, I'm very hopeful we'll figure it out, but it's going to hurt to get from here to there. That's what growing and learning is about. Right?




Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by guiding them towards making informed decisions and finding the best-fit schools for their children. Our consultants specialize in counseling families and helping them to find and secure placement for their children in preschools, private day schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, or schools with particular program offerings, such as special needs support.

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