Coronavirus Will Make College More Affordable and Accessible

Colleges across the country have been forced to reimagine distance learning programs, and many are choosing to get rid of standardized testing requirements. Could college also become more affordable?

As children, we see the world as black and white. People are either good or bad, as are our experiences. It’s not until we grow older that we realize the entire world is a shade of gray. Those deemed the worst of society, such as child abusers and killers, often experience traumatic events during their formative years that shape their perception of the world and make them who they are. It’s easy to deem them “evil,” but would you or I have turned out any differently if placed in their shoes?

There is a mix of good and bad in all of us, and in everything we experience. Even a global pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people has brought some good to the world. We’ve seen just how easy it is to reduce our carbon emissions; we shut down the world for a month and our skies and waters suddenly became clearer. Although we couldn’t leave our homes, many of us had the opportunity to spend more time with our loved ones than ever before. 

Most changes were only temporary, but some will stay with us for good. Many people will start working from home permanently. Most of us will continue to keep our distance from strangers, even after the pandemic is over. Colleges across the country are also experiencing several big, long overdue changes. 

Distance learning

The most obvious change in the fall for many college students will be attending class all or partially online. While most students would probably rather go to classes in-person, an analysis of 50 studies found that students learning online performed modestly better than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction. The analysis also found that combining in-person learning and online instruction is superior to both purely online learning and purely face-to-face instruction.

Since the pandemic is still evolving, many colleges haven’t committed one way or the other to online classes or in-person learning. It’s safe to say, though, that more college students than ever will experience a combination of the two this fall. The capacity of classrooms will go down to keep students at a safer distance, and they may only be able to attend in-person instruction one or two days per week. 

If the research is true, college students will perform better this fall than they ever have. Beyond 2020, combination learning and online classes will be implemented permanently at colleges across the country. Giving students a choice of their preferred method of instruction will make college more accessible. Those in rural areas often live hours away from the nearest four-year college and might not be able to afford to live on-campus and pay for meals, in addition to books, fees, and tuition. Expanding high-speed, affordable internet access to the entire country is required for everyone to have equal access to online classes. Students who want and can afford a traditional college experience will still be able to have it; online and combination learning options will provide a quality education to students who may have never had the opportunity to go to college otherwise.

Will college be more affordable?

Surprisingly, online classes are typically just as expensive as in-person instruction. One study found that 74% of colleges surveyed charge the same for online programs as in-person ones, 23% said they charged more for online classes, and 18% said they charged less (pricing isn’t always consistent across the board, so a college might have one online program that costs the same as in-person instruction, and a different online program at the same college might cost more or less than in-person instruction).

Perhaps even more surprisingly, online classes aren’t as expensive as in-person learning just because colleges are trying to price gouge students. Fewer students take classes online than do in-person, so even though the overall cost to the college for offering online classes is less, the cost per student could actually be higher since less students take online classes. The good news is that costs will go down as more students opt to attend classes online, and it’s likely that more students than ever will have online courses this fall, either by choice or by requirement.

Tuition inflation began slowing down before the pandemic. From the 2018-19 school year to the 2019-20 school year, tuition and fees at four-year colleges and universities rose 2.3% before adjusting for inflation. In 2004, tuition inflation was nearly 10%, so it has slowed down considerably over the decade plus, although it’s still rising faster than inflation. If this trend continues, we could see tuition increase even less, or, if demand drops enough, colleges may actually lower tuition.

Getting rid of the SAT and ACT

Standardized college admissions tests, such as the SAT and ACT, are now optional for applicants at many schools. Some schools, including the entire University of California system, will be doing away with the SAT and ACT permanently. Education reform groups have long criticized standardized testing requirements, and the pandemic only hastened their demise. Tests like the ACT and SAT favor wealthy students who can afford private tutors and exam prep courses. Some wealthy individuals, like Lori Loughlin, go so far as to pay exam administrators to inflate their children’s exam scores.

Getting rid of standardized testing requirements will help level the playing field between wealthy kids and poorer students, and, although the amount of money your family has will still go a long way in determining how good of a college you get into, it’s still a step in the right direction.

No matter what happens between now and the fall (believe me when I say that nothing is off the table), college students will have a vastly different experience this year than any other college students before them. Colleges that choose to go full steam ahead will still need to keep a close eye on students to attempt to prevent any outbreaks (which might be an impossible task). Even if their learning experience is mostly unchanged, students will worry about bringing the virus home to their family over breaks, which many inevitably will, and some will be forced to live with the death of a family member.

Once the pandemic is quelled, through a vaccine or herd immunity induced by mass exposure, some of our transformations will remain, and some will be positive. The institution of higher learning has much room for improvement, and coronavirus is accelerating that improvement. In the coming years, college will be more accessible, by doing away with standardized testing and expanding options for distance learning, and may even become more affordable. 

The pandemic has brought anxiety, grief, and worry to nearly everyone in the world, and as we’ve seen over the last several months, our society is more malleable and susceptible to change than it has been in a long time. We can work and fight for a more equitable world. Some positive changes are already happening, like with our colleges, and more are on the way.

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