Paul L. Caron

Monday, April 27, 2020

What If Colleges (And Law Schools) Don’t Reopen Until 2021?

The Atlantic, What If Colleges Don’t Reopen Until 2021?:

CoronavirusOverall, colleges have responded quickly to the multifaceted coronavirus threat. Universities swiftly moved classes online, canceled spring sports, and instructed students to vacate their dorm rooms. (Some institutions refunded fees for on-campus housing, or found ways to get study-abroad students home.) Still, shutting down was the easy part. Now administrators have to figure what their institutions will do once this semester ends. “If you were to design a place to make sure that everyone gets the virus, it would look like a nursing home or a campus,” Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, which has more than 130,000 students enrolled online, told me yesterday.

When university presidents are asked whether they’ll open their campuses for the fall 2020 semester, most couch their answers in conditionals and assumptions. By now they’ve realized that they can’t just open for business on September 1 and let everyone rush back onto campus like excited Black Friday shoppers. Ohio State President Michael Drake suggested he might start bringing professors back to campus in a few weeks. Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University, said he would reopen its campus in the fall and separate those older than 35 from those younger. But even he called the declaration “preliminary."

When there are tens of thousands of dollars at stake for students and their families, I don’t know is not a satisfying answer. Why would students plunge themselves into years of debt for an online education instead of the full college experience they signed up for? Some soon-to-be high-school graduates have proposed taking a gap year, but for a lot of students—low-income students, minority students, adult students—that is not a practical option. ...

John Thelin, a University of Kentucky professor and the author of the definitive History of American Higher Education, told me that he’s never seen anything like the dual crisis colleges are facing right now. If this were just a public-health crisis or a financial crisis, institutions likely would have been fine. The two combined, however, have produced an unprecedented disruption. “Colleges are prepared for dramatic, catastrophic events. What they’re not prepared for are drawn-out things that are less spectacular, but that really cannibalize their operations and their budgets,” he said. ...

Nobody wants to be the first to reopen, nor the first to say they’re going remote until 2021 or later.

For complete TaxProf Blog coverage of the coronavirus, see here.

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To address the question - “What If Colleges (And Law Schools) Don’t Reopen Until 2021?” - it’s probably important to understand - and to persuade the administrators planning for the fall term - that the concerns and considerations related to undergraduates and to law students are very different, and that the law school can easily operate differently from the undergrad colleges, especially at a time of crisis.

Thus, even if a university feels compelled to accept the risks of infecting faculty and students with COVID-19 by having in-classroom instruction this fall for undergrads, it can - and arguably should - permit the law school to largely proceed with on-line instruction if it decides it is appropriate to do so.


Many articles report that parents are growing reluctant to send their young children to a university far from home when there is a significant chance that they will become infected with COVID-19 from interactions in classrooms, dormitories, and elsewhere - especially if there should be a second or even a third wave - where the in-patient hospital care, out-patient hospital care, and "home"/dorm care they might receive may be problematical.

Many incoming and other undergraduate students want to have - and parents who pay the bills want them to have - the complete "college experience" where they live away from home and with peers, often for the first time in their lives; participate in sports, clubs, parties, and other activities; learn from the close supervision and discipline provided in a classroom how to study at a level far exceeding that of high school; etc. - something they would not receive from on-line instruction alone.

Indeed, many students and their families are balking at suggestions that they might have to pay the same high tuition for on-line instruction which the university charged in the past for in-person classroom learning, and others suddenly can't - or are, at the very least, very uncertain about being able to - pay the high tuition at a major private university.

For these reasons, it is expected that many newly admitted students will eventually decide - in a significant number of cases even after putting down a deposit - not to attend any university this academic year (i.e., "take a gap year"), or to attend a college near home where they will save money and be better situated should they become infected with the virus, or if there is another wave of infections.

Many of these same concerns may well motivate even students who were scheduled to return to their own university to continue their education to likewise take a gap year, or to enroll for a term or a year at a less-expensive college near home.

For all these reasons, it is likely that many universities, reluctant to lose the income ordinarily derived from tuition, room, board, etc. - might be willing to cut some corners and risk scheduling in-classroom instruction for the fall term, despite the very substantial risk that some students and faculty members will become infected and possibly require hospitalization.


But almost the opposite is true regarding law students.

Experience during earlier times of economic uncertainty and a poor job market shows that more new college graduates will want to go to law school and become 1Ls, rather than try to enter the job market.

This choice permits them to ride out the period of great economic uncertainty, and graduate three years later into a presumably stronger economy, with a better job market, including substantially improved opportunities for employment as attorneys or otherwise.

Those who will be returning to the law school seem to be very eager to simply get their degrees, pass the bar, and begin earning an income, and are less interested about issues such as on-line vs. in-classroom instruction which are a much greater concern for inexperienced undergrads.

Also, few law students come for, or really actively participate in, the various extra-curricular activities and opportunities so beloved by many undergrads.

Law students are older and more mature, so concerns about not being able to take care of themselves if they become infected, and/or if there is a second wave, are far less than for immature 18- or 19-year old undergrads who are often just learning to live away from their parents for the first time.

Finally, law students have generally developed their study habits sufficiently enough that they no longer need the very close supervision and discipline which can best be provided in a classroom setting, and they probably already have significant experience taking some courses on line - just the opposite of undergrads.


In summary, many if not most of the reasons pressuring administrators to take the risks of infection associated with in-classroom instruction this fall - e.g., reducing sharp drops in attendance, the need for close in-class supervision and discipline, unfamiliarity with on-line learning at a higher educational level, etc. - do not apply to the law school and law students.

So, even if university administrators feel compelled to schedule in-classroom instruction for most of the university this fall, it can easily permit its law school to proceed (with possible exceptions for clinics and some specialized courses) with on-line instruction for the fall 2020 term.

After all, the law school has - and certainly should be willing to assert where appropriate - some independence from the remainder of the university, especially that regarding undergraduate education.

Posted by: LawProf John Banzhaf | Apr 27, 2020 1:38:36 PM