I graduated from college in 1970. In the past few years my alma mater, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology – which was then Rose Polytechnic Institute – has begun a tradition of combining the Golden Anniversary alumni celebration with the regular commencement ceremony. My fellow geezers and I were to don caps and gowns and sit with the graduating class of 2020 along with a special dinner and recognition. I had been in touch with classmates and fraternity brothers and we were all looking forward to it.
But like the Senior Class of 2020, that’s obviously not going to happen. While I’m disappointed, it is trivial compared to my sympathy for them. Rose is a very good school and receiving a degree there deserves recognition.
My self-pity has been overtaken, however by a larger and far more serious problem for Rose-Hulman: its existence. Bloomberg columnist and academic Noah Smith lays out a stark future for colleges – from massive universities to small schools like mine. It’s deeply troubling for the educational system but also for the rural areas that have been anchored economically by higher education dollars. I see it sixty miles away at the University of Illinois and Purdue. How colleges will re-open and what they will look like is a huge unknown. Will students, and parents be willing to pay the exploding cost of college if it’s mostly on-line – regardless of how good the end result is? For that matter, looking at the state of our economy what value will perspective students put on a degree when the job outlook for that learning is frankly unknown? How many suddenly unemployed parents will be able to pay for or help children to a degree? The possible end of full-fee-paying foreign students from Asia alone will be a crippling blow to schools which had specialized in this lucrative US export.
Colleges were already dealing with a top-heavy system with more tenured faculty in administration than teaching. Bloated personnel costs, overly ambitious building budgets, and unclear strategies for dealing with fewer college age children have all been revealed by the shutdown. On the same day I was notified by my college that commencement was cancelled, another bluntly worded letter made clear how important alumni support would be not just for new buildings and programs, but to keep the lights on. Since then the situation has gotten even worse. The college apocalypse, as Smith labeled it, is not just coming, but upon us, and the economic repercussions will impact not just the path to high-paying jobs, but the future of some of our most prosperous farm areas.