How the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Shattered the Myth of College in America

The promise of college in America is the promise of a clear path to the future, of a reward for all the sleep deprivation and soul-deadening competition of high school, and, most of all, of instant adulthood. This is a stunningly resilient myth. It survived the financial crisis of 2007-08. It persisted even as more and more young people moved home after graduation and never left, because they couldn’t afford to. It has continued to beckon teen-agers even as student debt came to dominate the lives of their older siblings and parents. Every year, more people have competed for spots in colleges and universities, waiting for letters that promised a steady route: arrival at a Disney-Gothic castle; eight semesters, one of them abroad; two or three summer internships; a festive launch of a lucrative, or at least secure, career. They waited, too, for the elaborate succession of celebratory events that precedes college: senior prank, senior skip day, prom, yearbook, graduation, and more. As of April, 2020, none of that is happening: not the celebrations; not, for many, the college; and, most important, not the adulthood—at least not as they imagined it.

As a professor, I see my students on Zoom now, in class or during what now passes for office hours. They are usually sitting on their beds, in their childhood bedrooms or in their dorm rooms on mostly deserted campuses. I know why some of them couldn’t go home: a parent has had a transplant; a sibling has cystic fibrosis; the family kicked them out for coming out as gay. I know some of their worries: a student has been sick with covid-19; another student was living off campus and working full time but has now been laid off; a student stayed at the college while two family members were ill; most summer internships and study programs have been cancelled (and some universities are talking about an online-only fall semester). As a parent, I am sharing a house with one college student and one rising freshman, neither of whom planned to be living with me this spring. As a journalist, in recent weeks I have talked to more than a dozen young people whose future and present have been swallowed up in the fog of the pandemic.

Saminah Haddad, a seventeen-year-old senior at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, wasn’t expecting her college offers until later in the spring: she runs track, and recruiters look at the spring season, she told me over Zoom. This year, there will be no spring season, which for Haddad means no four-year college. She is considering Long Beach City College, which is free for state residents. She also lost her job at an amusement park. All of the senior-year milestones that Haddad had been looking forward to have been cancelled: prom, graduation, and an event called the “Pursuit of Excellence Awards,” where she would have been recognized for perfect attendance. She doesn’t yet know if she’ll still be working this summer for her father, who was about to open a juice bar in Brooklyn.

In the meantime, Haddad’s school is offering some online instruction, but in her case the course load has dropped to just two classes: A.P. Literature, which meets virtually, and a government class, which consists of written assignments that she receives by e-mail. Her other classes, which were electives, “aren’t really doing anything,” she said. Haddad is planning to take her A.P. exam, though she finds it hard to imagine what the forty-five-minute, cell-phone-friendly version of the test will be like. No one knows how prospective colleges will view it, either.

“Online classes are boring,” she said. The descriptor she used perhaps most often in our conversation, in fact, was “boring.” Life has been drained of content, and the plot is lost. She texts with friends. She argues with her mom and stepdad a lot. “It’s bringing us closer together,” she half joked. “But it’s O.K.”

E.,an eighteen-year-old Barnard freshman, is scared, not bored. E., who is nonbinary and isn’t out to their parents, was adopted at age ten, along with their two siblings; their biological mother had abandoned them, and their biological father was struggling with addiction. At first, Barnard was everything E. needed: a beautiful campus, a sense of community, counselling services, and, through the office of disability services, the academic accommodations that E. needed.

E. went home for winter break but decided to come back early because, they told me over Zoom, their parents were being emotionally abusive. A complicated bureaucratic procedure awaits any Barnard student who attempts to return to their dorm when school is out of session, so E. stayed with an alumna in Brooklyn until the spring semester began. In March, when Columbia, which is affiliated with and adjacent to Barnard, abruptly closed its campus after identifying a member of the community who had been exposed to the coronavirus, E. didn’t ask to stay on campus and never considered going to their parents’ home. Even though E. is financing their education through loans—E.’s parents have no real relationship, financial or otherwise, with the school—e-mail messages about the end of in-person classes and the closure of campus went to all students’ parents. “We are trying to get away from our parents, but, unfortunately, the college system doesn’t really allow dependency overrides,” E. told me. “If your parents make a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year but they are not willing to help you pay for college, there isn’t a lot of sensitivity to that.” E.’s parents wanted to know why E. wasn’t coming home, and E. couldn’t really explain to them that college was supposed to be E.’s way to escape, once and for all, their parents’ homophobic comments and the constant blare of Fox News. “I’d been trying to go to a college far enough away that they wouldn’t visit me,” E. said.

E. has a rent-free place to stay, with a lesbian activist in Harlem, until summer. E. is applying for internships and trying to raise money to rent their own apartment; another summer option they considered was to stay with their biological father, who, E. said, is now clean and sober. Concentrating on coursework, meanwhile, is difficult. All of E.’s four classes are now on Zoom, with additional assignments and recorded lectures. E. hasn’t been able to finish many assignments. “I’m really trying to stay afloat this semester,” E. said, and so are their classmates. “I know a lot of people are having trouble focussing.” E. finally scheduled a Zoom meeting with disability services, more than a month after in-person classes ended and less than a month before the end of the semester.

Many colleges have set up a petitioning process to allow certain students to remain on campus during the shutdown: international students, students who have health conditions or whose family members have health conditions that preclude their travelling home, and students whose home situations are precarious or unsafe. Exemptions are not usually granted to students who ask to stay because they have a job near campus. Cassidy Shannon, a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Emmanuel College in Boston, had a job at a burger joint that synced well with her class schedule. Now she is at her mother’s house in Westborough, Massachusetts, working as a server at a retirement home. “This retirement home is really fancy,” she explained to me over Zoom. Residents used to take their meals in a dining hall, served by high-school students; once the pandemic took hold, the old staff “had to stop because their parents didn’t want them working there,” Shannon said. Now she is one of just three or four young people who deliver meals to the residents’ rooms. Shannon’s mother, a preschool teacher, is also still working— providing child-care services to first responders—and her seventeen-year-old sister, a high-school junior, has kept her job at Chick-fil-A.

Two of Shannon’s classes are now given as pre-recorded lectures, available online, but the other two meet by Zoom at six in the evening, which means that she can’t take as many shifts at the retirement home as she needs to. She is financing her education through student loans: she borrowed twenty-two thousand dollars for her first year and thirteen thousand dollars for her second, when her financial assistance was increased as a reward for good grades. “I’m such an in-person learner,” she said. “I’m paying all this money for something that isn’t the same.”

It’s unclear what Shannon, other students, and their parents are actually paying for. Put another way, what exactly is a four-year college? “It’s a hedge fund that teaches classes as a tax dodge,” one Twitter user posted, after Harvard announced, in mid-April, that it was cutting salaries and other expenses, despite its endowment, which reached more than forty billion dollars in 2019. “And they’re barely even doing the ‘teaches classes’ part anymore now.”

Of course, most smaller colleges have modest endowments, or barely any endowments at all, and depend on income from tuition and student fees to keep going from year to year. Room and board fees make up a large and growing portion of college investments and income. Emmanuel College, where Shannon studies, recently unveiled an eighteen-story residence hall that cost a hundred and forty million dollars to build, or roughly the equivalent of the college’s entire endowment. Most colleges, including those that used to be known as commuter schools, such as Manhattan School of Music, in New York City, now require freshmen and, often, sophomores to live on campus, even if their families live nearby. Colleges might be called landlords of sorts, except that dormitory tenants don’t have leases and can be evicted at will. It might be more accurate to say that colleges are in the hospitality and catering business, except that a hotel that kicked you out of your room or a restaurant that cancelled your reservation would be expected to refund the entirety of your payment. Some colleges have refunded the room and board fees for the unused portion of the semester, others are refunding a portion of that portion, and still others have not yet committed to refunding any money.

Most faculty, students, and administrators don’t actually think of colleges as hedge funds or hoteliers; they think, rather, that colleges charge students for teaching them. Before the coronavirus pandemic, professors would grouse that their students acted like customers who expected faculty to provide services. But it’s impossible to argue that online instruction, even when exceptionally well-executed, delivers the same quality of education as in-person teaching. I’ve been lucky: all of my students have high-speed Internet access, I have relatively small classes, and my students had a chance to get to know one another during the first six weeks of the semester. (Some of my friends who teach on different timetables met their students for the first time online.) I have done my best to compensate for what students have lost: learning by discussion, by engaging with one another and with me in ways that simply cannot be replicated online. Still, they are certainly not learning as much as they would be in person.

Students at some universities have started organizing to demand tuition refunds, and some have sued, arguing that online classes aren’t what they paid for. In an extraordinary step, Southern New Hampshire University has announced full-tuition scholarships for incoming freshmen—but not for returning students—and a sixty-one per cent tuition cut starting in 2021. Most colleges will not take such drastic steps, and many simply cannot afford to without overhauling their entire model. With worries about fall enrollment and a growing understanding that the fall semester, if it happens at all, will likely be taught at least partly online, colleges will have to argue that what they are delivering onscreen is worth as much as what students would have received in the classroom. This, in turn, may force a conversation about what the colleges are actually selling. Although the service they provide is education, the product for which they charge is the college degree—the piece of paper that promises a student will earn eighty-four per cent more in their lifetime than if they had only a high-school diploma. This and similar statistics are what allow so many college students to think of their loans not as astronomical debts but as investments in their future. Now that future is changing in ways none of us can really apprehend.

Those who are graduating this year face the worst job market in nearly a century and, by the time they graduate, possibly the worst job market in recorded history. Emilia Decaudin, a twenty-one-year-old senior at cuny’s Macaulay Honors College and the youngest-ever member of the Democratic State Committee of New York, told me that she had planned to start looking for work at a nonprofit this month. But nonprofits aren’t hiring, she said over Zoom, “and even if one was, what’s the point of finding a job that’s likely not to exist by summer?”

Cameron Wright, a twenty-two-year-old senior at Yale, is the rare college student whose employment plans appear to be on track. He is scheduled to begin working as a legal researcher at a tech company in New York this summer; he was planning to spend a year there before going to law school. But the prospect of actually moving to New York has gone from daunting to incomprehensible. For now, Wright is still in New Haven, one of eleven people who remain in his dorm, out of the usual three hundred. He rarely catches sight of any of the others. Twice a day he goes to the single dining hall that remains open on campus, but only to pick up grab-and-go meals. Wright’s home is in rural Kentucky, with his mother, who has a history of pulmonary illness. “I just couldn’t stand the thought of something happening to my mother,” he told me. For a while, he considered renting a car and driving to Kentucky, but he couldn’t find a place where he could self-quarantine before seeing his mother.

“I’m thinking a lot about the unreliability of things,” Wright told me on the phone the first time we spoke. His father, a state-government employee, died when Wright was ten. After his death, Wright’s mother went back to work as a substitute teacher. “I didn’t necessarily fit in at home in Kentucky,” Wright said in an e-mail, “and I did not want to follow the traditional path of graduating high school, attending an in-state public school, and then moving back home.” A combination of his mother’s support, a few good teachers, and, as Wright put it, “the chance nature of college admissions” got him to Yale with a full-tuition financial-aid package. A job as a residential adviser to freshmen paid for his room and board this year, and, in the second half of March and early April, Wright was spending much of his time trying to clarify Yale’s temporary grading policies for his advisees. Some colleges have eliminated letter grades entirely this spring, switching all courses to a pass-fail system. Others have given students the choice between letter grades and pass-fail grades; meanwhile, some graduate schools, like Harvard Medical School, were warning prospective applicants that pass-fail grades would be viewed neutrally only from colleges that instituted a temporary universal pass-fail system. (Yale made pass-fail optional at first, and Wright and other students lobbied successfully to make the policy universal.)

Wright was finishing his senior thesis, on the Soviet dissident Raisa Orlova. “It’s really hard to think about history when you are living through it,” he told me. He was trying to find a connection to his academic work by thinking about loneliness. Might the loneliness imposed by the pandemic help him understand the loneliness of someone who dared to think differently in a totalitarian society?

When we e-mailed a week and a half later, Wright had completed his thesis and had received his passing grade for the spring. He was still on campus but thinking of relocating to a friend’s empty apartment. I asked Wright if he was still planning to go to law school. “One of the things the pandemic offers is the cruelest reminder that anything is possible,” he e-mailed in response. He wrote:

Your whole life can be turned upside down, the people you have spent the past four years with can be torn away at a moment’s notice, and you can feel constant paranoia that you’ll get sick or make others sick. On a broader level, the political systems which are supposed to protect us can fail, the entire logic of our economic system can invert, people can show both their best and their worst selves. I am trying, perhaps in vain, to make something out of this. I believe that life can never—and should never—be the same after this crisis. I have the foreboding sense, however, that we will emerge from this and find ourselves in a world trying to recreate the status quo ante. Even if that is the case, I can’t let that be my own personal response.

He went on to say that he would try to write more, perhaps try to publish. “I want my work to be incessant in reminding others of our own precarity,” he wrote. And then, he said, he would probably go to law school.

Masha Gessen