Opinion | ‘Don’t Lose Hope’: Addressing the Breakdown of College Education

J.M.: I think most professors care about their students both academically and personally, and some manage to break through the anonymity of large classes and forge personal connections. That is certainly Dr. Walsh’s goal. “I want [students] to be successful in my course. I want them to learn and engage,” she told me. But with the mass absences of the past academic year, she said, “it’s been a struggle to do that.”

Colleges were only able to function at all early in the pandemic because faculty members and staff took on an unsustainable burden of extra work. To give students personal attention, faculty members need reasonable workloads, including smaller classes, which means universities need to hire more full-time faculty members.

To justify greater public spending, universities must convince the public that higher education is more than a pathway to students’ individual economic success. College is at least partly a public good, because well-educated and highly-skilled people enrich society both economically and culturally. Student loan forgiveness is one way to acknowledge this fact.

Steven McCornack, East Lansing, Mich.: I wonder whether the author has actually talked with his students about why they are disengaged and absent. I don’t presume to know about his students, but mine were absent because they were working two to three jobs to cover their family’s expenses, because their parents were unemployed, disabled or dead. My students were Zooming from hospital bedsides, with dying grandparents; being full-time caregivers with family members in hospices, or in emergency rooms awaiting their own admission for low oxygen levels. Reality check: The pandemic isn’t over! Why do we persist in treating all that we currently are experiencing with denialism, or view the traumas students are still experiencing as something incidental from the past, that they need to now get over? More importantly, how will increasing standards address student PTSD, grief, illness and support of family members?

J.M.: As important as higher education is, some things are more important. People facing health and family crises or who need to work long hours might not have the spare time and focus to be full-time students. They might be better able to care for themselves and others if they take fewer classes, or don’t enroll at all, until they are in position to get the most out of college: not just a degree, but an education.

But the economic value of a degree can put pressure on students to stay enrolled even when other needs are more urgent; another year without graduating is also another year with lower average earnings. In addition, universities often make financial aid contingent on studying full time; federal loan programs require half-time enrollment. These rules may need to change so more students can learn effectively while advancing toward a degree at a manageable pace. Universal preschool and affordable child care would also help students who are parents.