photograph of college students in class
"Class of University Students Using Laptops in Lecture" by monkeybusiness (via depositphotos)

What initiatives enacted as an emergency response to the pandemic will be permanent and become the new norm? Among the many possible legacies is a change in the perceived value of traditional college learning. Colleges and universities whose campuses are now closed will have a responsibility to execute the transition to distance learning effectively so that they can ensure there is not a substantial dip in the quality of education. But by doing so, will they inadvertently degrade the value of in-person learning?

If these colleges fail to execute the transition online well–and some teachers from the even most prestigious schools are ill-equipped for distance learningthey may reveal the value of face-to-face learning. They may show what is lost when students and professors are not interacting together in a classroom and on a campus. But if the colleges do execute the transition well, they reveal that the value of face-to-face learning may be overrated. Some college students have begun asking themselves, if what is accomplished in the classroom can be accomplished online, why incur high tuition and housing costs to go to school?

A 2015 survey found that nearly half of online college students cited affordability as the reason for enrolling in their program. A surprising 78% of respondents indicated that the academic quality of their online learning experiences were comparable to or better than their classroom experiences. Suppose that the quality of education is comparableeven though there are innumerable benefits to in-person learning, what then can traditional colleges offer that learning from one’s laptop cannot?

Colleges are currently struggling to answer that question. Beyond the growing challenge of the online alternative, many “brick and mortar” institutions were already facing severe financial concerns before the pandemic caused them to close their campuses. An analysis by Forbes last Fall found that the financial well-being of private not-for-profit colleges “has deteriorated and many are in danger of closing or merging.” The pandemic and the resulting transition to distance learning has only made the threat more pronounced and immediate, and less dismissable and abstract.

The transition is a threat to the existence of small liberal arts colleges in particular. “Schools are facing unexpected costs as they try to switch their entire classroom instruction apparatus to online-only,” David Jesse reports in USA Today. “That’s a particular challenge for small liberal arts colleges, whose calling cards are face-to-face relationships between faculty and students.”

To stay afloat, institutions without the luxury of deep pockets and long-standing reputations may need to stress the value of the social component of going to school and living on a campus, i.e. experiences that cannot be had through online learning. Indeed, the challenge for residential and liberal arts colleges will be to quantify the rather intangible and ineffable value of socialization in education.

K-12 education is a primary vehicle of socialization. According to the Department of Education, children in the U.S. spend approximately seven hours a day, 180 days a year in the classroom. There students learn socially-desirable behaviors such as teamwork, following schedules, and engaging with others in a respectful manner. They learn how to participate in society.

The same could be said of the college experience, which typically occurs at a formative time in a student’s life. Young people go to college, where they live in a community of similarly-aged individuals and participate in Greek life, sports, student government, and many other social groups. Some extra- and co-curricular activities, such as Ethics Bowl, provide intellectual stimulation alongside opportunities to socialize.

In the unique setting of a college campus, students are exposed to, live with, and befriend people from different regions, with different customs and worldviews. Ideally, this experience teaches them how to interact with other members of society after graduation. Former Ivy League professor Louis Menand argues that college “takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste.” In short, it transforms these very different individuals into a unique class.

Going to college also thrusts most students into a new world of independence, characterized by a constant flurry of adult decisions and responsibilities. For the first time in many of their lives, students must set their own schedules, manage their own finances, and learn how to navigate relationships without the comfort of being under their parents’ roof. They are given a test run of their adult life. As Anne Rondeau, president of College of DuPage, writes, “students are in an environment that challenges them to make important decisions every day.” And those decisions and challenges are not confined solely to their academic pursuits.

Residential and liberal arts colleges are as much an academic experience as they are a social one. While the process of socialization could be achieved elsewherein one’s job or active participation in one’s communityit certainly could not occur via distance learning. The nature of distance learning hampers the students’ ability to socialize, limiting everything from spontaneous, casual conversation with professors to opportunities to forge lasting relationships with other students. And in order to succeed, those struggling traditional institutions may need to highlight just that. They need to be equipped to answer the questions that many prospective students and their parents are asking right now: What is the value of your institution’s social experience? And is it worth the cost you are asking?

If those institutions fail to effectively convince families of the value of their social experience and justify the tuition and housing cost, their end may be near. Without residential colleges, prospective students lose one of the most important and successful means of learning how to be members of society.  Of course, that assumes those students will still feel comfortable sharing close spaces on a campus after months of social distancing.