The Myth of The Empty Campus
Bloomberg Businessweek|May 25 - June 01, 2020
The pandemic has led people to predict the end of college as we know it. That’s not going to happen
Joe Nocera

Purdue is a school that, in the words of its president, Mitch Daniels Jr., “promotes density of our population.” The current enrollment of the university in West Lafayette, Ind., is more than 44,000, up 25% since he took over in 2013. Purdue keeps tuition under $10,000 for in-state students, and room and board costs are lower than those of any other school in the Big Ten. Its football stadium holds 60,000 people. Its theater is larger than Radio City Music Hall.

Like every other American university, Purdue sent its students home as the coronavirus swept through the country in March, switching to online classes to finish the semester. Its commencement also took place virtually. But when the university restarts for the 2020-21 school year, professors and students—including the second-largest freshman class in its history—will be returning to campus, just as they always have.

Purdue “intends to accept students on campus in typical numbers this fall, sober about certain problems that the Covid-19 virus represents, but determined not to surrender helplessly to those difficulties but to tackle and manage them aggressively and creatively,” Daniels wrote in a letter to the university community on April 21. He concluded: “Purdue will employ every measure we can adopt or devise to manage this challenge with maximum safety … while proceeding with the noble and essential mission for which our institution stands.”

Noble, yes. Essential, yes. And an absolute financial necessity.

Do you remember MOOCs? The initials stand for massive open online courses, and there was a moment, about a decade ago, when they were all the rage in higher-education circles. Some predicted that online courses would become a dominant mode of learning, allowing universities to expand enrollment significantly while lowering their own costs. Although MOOCs are still around—mainly serving nonstudents paying for online lectures from high-profile professors—their impact on higher ed has been marginal. The reason is that students didn’t like online classes. Neither did their parents. And neither did their professors.

Students wanted to be on a campus, interacting with other students, going to basketball and football games, and generally absorbing the “college experience.” Parents had zero interest in paying upwards of $70,000 a year to have their children take classes on a computer screen. And professors objected as well, in part because they’re territorial and in part because interacting with students during a class was infinitely more difficult when the class was virtual. Indeed, the only students who regularly relied on online learning were athletes, for whom virtual classes were often unavoidable given their practice schedules. (When he was the star quarterback at Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel was said to have never stepped on campus other than to play football.)

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