How many modern American enterprises have adapted and lasted almost four centuries?
Perhaps only one: higher education.
Since its founding in 1636, time and again, American higher education has proven its resiliency and extraordinary value. We’ve faced myriad challenges through the years.
In recent years, we’ve faced predictions that the best education would soon be totally online and cost nothing. Online learning has only enhanced higher education, not replaced it. Also, it costs someone a fair amount of money to provide. It is therefore not free and never has been.
There has also been the threat posed by systematic rhetoric claiming the decreased value and relevancy of a college degree. However, just this year, the Brookings Institution reported an undeniable fact: on average, college graduates can earn twice that of high school grads over their lifetimes—almost $2 million more. College grads also generally enjoy better health, file fewer disability claims and sustain higher levels of employment during economic downturns. Earning higher degrees only increases these benefits. The present and projected demand for baccalaureate degreed professionals has perhaps never been greater.
COVID-19 is the latest threat to higher education—that is, if we permit it to paralyze us. Moving to online delivery was the right decision in the early stage of the pandemic, something necessary under unique circumstances. We’ve learned a lot in a short time about how to continue our work and protect our students, employees and the public during a pandemic. We should not waste that valuable knowledge, nor should we ignore what we will continue to learn this summer. Planning for a worst-case scenario is wise, and nearly every college administration is doing just that in these uncertain times. However, the fact is that we thrive more and develop more breakthrough solutions when we are optimistic.
COVID-19 is a serious issue, but neither university leaders nor the public should allow it to totally incapacitate us. In this case, let’s see the glass as half full, not half empty. Many educational leaders have very hopeful intentions to re-open campuses this fall. Unless there is overwhelming evidence of non-stop infection growth, our hope is to return to normal—even if it’s a normal with new realities. One college president says she is cautiously optimistic. Most presidents seem to feel similarly. To best balance public health interests with economic interests, we should return to a normal with new realities. Neither can override the other for significantly protracted periods of time. We must manage both.
Right now, our top priority is rightly the welfare of our students, employees and our friends and neighbors. We are concerned that people have died, businesses are suffering and that many families have lost income because of layoffs and furloughs. We will do all we can to protect our population, preserve jobs for our employees and help families afford to keep sons and daughters in college. We want to take every reasonable step we can to facilitate the shared goal of returning to the greatest measure of “normal” we can achieve, as quickly as we can achieve it.
This new “normal” is what I believe Governor Henry McMaster’s forward-thinking “accelerateSC” task force aims to facilitate. It’s described as a “coordinated economic revitalization plan involving small and large business owners, leaders in manufacturing, healthcare, education and government,” all working together to get South Carolina back to work rebuilding our economy and building our future. Higher education is central to it all.
In considering whether campuses should open, we cannot overlook the economic value and public good of higher education to our state. Fifty-nine non-profit, four-year colleges and universities represent a huge part of South Carolina’s economic engine. Annually, we educate more than 290,000 students, most of them from right here in our great South Carolina. We graduate more than 50,000 individuals who become workers and taxpayers. We employ approximately 44,000 individuals whose compensation totals more than $3.3 billion. Every year, our collective economic impact on South Carolina is approximately $5.8 billion. Adding in our 16 technical and community colleges, the numbers are even more staggering. And, contrary to popular myth, though non-profit colleges and universities generally don’t pay property and income taxes, we pay almost every other tax, just like businesses.
In all candor, if we cannot fully open our campuses to traditional students this fall, the strength and survivability of our colleges and universities is at risk, and, with it, South Carolina’s economy. The prospect of opening our campuses to only a portion of our students is not financially viable. Moreover, the prospect of a full semester totally online is not likely to be attractive to today’s traditional students. All of our non-profit schools exist to serve the public good—today, tomorrow and forever. We cannot financially imperil our institutions, yet expect them to be resourced properly enough to pick up in 2021 where they left off in mid-spring 2020. That doesn’t serve the public good; it undermines it. And it’s not just about missing out on tuition and fees! It’s about educating students and the necessary long-term health and viability of all but the most heavily resourced universities in the state.
We also cannot ignore the serious shortages of professionals. Nurses, engineers, public school teachers, physical therapists, pharmacists, physicians, scientific researchers, cyber security experts—all are urgently needed. Delaying students’ education and training in these and other fields will only worsen the situation and erode South Carolina’s professional capital and our ability to meet some of our citizens’ most basic and critical needs. Indeed, South Carolina’s future, in great part, hinges on the uninterrupted education and training of professionals and technicians. All of our institutions will no doubt respect the Governor’s guidance and adhere to legal mandates at all times, but we are exceedingly eager to resume our urgent missions. We want to open this fall, and to open strongly.
Opening strongly means that we take what we’ve learned already about the nature of this virus and how it can be managed and apply it to our campuses. We are implementing and sharing best practices even now. While none of us are in complete control of the circumstances, clearly there are many things we can do to reasonably and responsibly protect our campuses and the communities in which they operate through controlled risk. This is a time for all in higher education to collaborate and share information. We are learning from one another and from public health experts. We have time to prepare.
As we communicate with students, we hear continuously that they miss their friends and professors. They miss face-to-face interaction, studying together, worshipping together, competing in athletics, being in musical and theatrical events and student government, and they miss the enjoyment of rich learning and living experiences on a campus alive with kinetic energy and animated creativity. That’s especially true at Anderson, where a close-knit family atmosphere is embedded in a campus culture that students refer to as their “home away from home.” For this reason, we have more students than ever who have indicated their desire to launch their college career at AU, and we will be prepared to welcome them.
Opening strongly means one more thing. It means we have to be realistic. Until a vaccine is developed, there will be rising and receding waves of infections. We must manage that the best we can.
In this balancing of public health and our economy, we should acknowledge what our experience with COVID-19 has already taught us—that most traditionally aged college students impacted develop only mild symptoms. Still, they must rigidly limit their close contact with older adults and those with underlying risk factors. We can discipline ourselves to do that.
Meanwhile, we all hope and pray for a reliable, approved treatment and vaccine sooner than later.
For now, COVID-19 will likely challenge our state for months to come, but for almost four centuries American higher education has risen to challenges. We can and will do it again. Think about it: just a few weeks ago, when abruptly faced with closing our campuses and shifting to online delivery of coursework, none of our South Carolina colleges and universities were unsuccessful. That’s resiliency. When circumstances demand it, we have a track record in reinventing and adapting the way we do what we do.
With South Carolinians’ support, whatever challenges we may have this fall, we can adapt, manage and help South Carolina rebound to thrive once again.
Evans Whitaker has been President and Professor of Management at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina, since 2002. He holds a Ph.D. in education and human development from Vanderbilt University. He is currently Vice Chair of the SC Tuition Grants Commission. He is a past member of the SC Higher Education Commission, past chair of the SC Independent Colleges & Universities Presidents Council, founder of the South Carolina School of the Arts, and the longest-serving private university president in the Palmetto State.