Friday, April 10: The world turned upside down

It’s 2020, and everything you knew about everything is wrong. America doesn’t have the greatest health system in the world, Wegmans isn’t quite so nice to its employees, and a college degree may not keep you employed.

Six in 10 Americans have lost jobs, hours or income from the coronavirus pandemic, according to results of a new survey from Strada Education Network, a nonprofit that researches and funds education and employment pathways… Strada’s data suggest that degrees and credentials are not insulating Americans from the economic effects of the pandemic. Two-thirds of associate or vocational degree holders and 63 percent of bachelor’s degree holders reported lost income, compared to only 54 percent of participants with some college experience but no degree.

The statistical difference between these populations doesn’t seem all that meaningful, but another conclusion of the same survey is: a lot of these college-educated people who have lost jobs think they would need more education to find new ones, but they aren’t particularly interested in going back to a physical campus.

The Strada respondents also demonstrated a large preference for online instruction. Over half said that if they were given $5,000 to invest in their education, they would spend it on online education, as opposed to in-person education or employer-provided training.

For decades, online instruction — in the form of massive open courses, mostly — has been the holy grail of American colleges and universities, the wave of the future that has been launched and touted and studied to death. However, this was always supposed to be an alternate income stream for brick-and-mortar schools. What happens in a world where even middle-class families really don’t want to send their kids off to crowded college dorms to get sick, or possibly just even face the kind of disruption and chaos that descended on American colleges this semester? SUNY officials don’t even know if brick-and-mortar classes will be able to resume in September. How prepared their incoming classes will be for freshman courses remains to be seen, as New York high school seniors have had their final year disrupted and will not be taking the Regents exams.

You can’t heave a brick in a small New York town or city without hitting a college or university of some kind. Higher education is Upstate’s heritage, and in some places, just about the only industry that keeps the streetlights on. A lot of small upstate colleges are staring into the abyss now, if only because of the general economic disruption. (Union College just furloughed over 30% of its staff.) And big ones, too: they’re looking at uncertain fall semester start dates, alumni offices whose donor streams have suddenly dried up, full-tuition-paying international students who may not return. Cornell has already instituted a hiring freeze. Many of the smaller colleges will not be able to mount marketable online degree programs if they haven’t already.

Even before the virus struck, smaller upstate colleges had problems. The problems at SUNY Poly are well known, but still ongoing. Even schools with better reputations and older histories may be in trouble. SUNY ESF, which began as a college of Syracuse University before becoming independent in 1911 and part of the SUNY system in 1948, is among those SUNY schools which relies more heavily on state dollars. Problems with aging facilities, campus space, governance and budget were already hanging over the college for years before this happened. (Last year, one rumor was that ESF was even looking into the possibility of returning to the SU fold as a contract college.)

Syracuse is more fortunate than most other Upstate college towns and cities: most of its higher educational institutions are crammed together on University Hill, and share this common space with two of the three hospitals, so certain relationships already exist. (Onondaga Community College is just down the road from Upstate’s Community Hospital.) “Eds and meds,” in Syracuse, is a literal area. No doubt, the higher eds and hospitals in Syracuse will continue to huddle together for warmth and light.

The American higher education system, already widely acknowledged as being almost as broken as the health care system, will possibly be the one major industry that is impacted in surprising and unexpected ways by the current upheaval. We could be looking at the beginnings of the end of the four-year degree. This is very bad news for Upstate New York in particular, and may leave some of the more vulnerable areas wide open for sweeping redevelopment that local residents will not be able to politically steer in the ways that they have become accustomed to. A way of life that allowed Upstate cities and towns to retain dollars and dignity may be disappearing, even as new opportunities (and dignity) may be arising for workers who don’t have a “real” college education.