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  • Sydney Pickering

Profit over Public Health: Universities Pressured to Reopen This Fall

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

On July 6th, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a policy directive revoking the visas of international students if their universities transitioned to fully virtual as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students swiftly responded with petitions and social media campaigns, and some universities even attempted to make loopholes by creating non-credit “in-person” courses only open to international students. All of these efforts are a testament to vehement opposition to the Trump administration’s aggressive policy directive. A lawsuit against the federal government, led by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and supported by more than 200 colleges, brought about necessary action, and within eight days, the directive was rescinded.

Contrary to popular belief, ICE’s decision had little to do with minimizing the transmission of COVID-19. Instead, the threat of deporting international students had more to do with reopening the economy and anti-immigration legislation–the very basis of Trump’s 2016 election campaign. By threatening to deport international students, the Trump administration is pressuring universities to reopen and adhere to in-person standards so they do not lose revenue.

As a point of reference, in 2018, the US Department of Commerce reported that international students contributed $45 billion to the US economy, mostly through tuition expenses. This number sheds light on just how critical the presence of international students is to the functionality of universities, and it also highlights Trump’s desperate attempts for economic recovery over saving human lives. So while universities across the nation are scrambling to adjust their complex logistical plans for reopening, the nation’s leadership has transformed education into a purely capitalist, political gain. The pressure for schools to reopen--in any capacity other than what they have planned--asks institutions to value profit over human life.

Though the success of this lawsuit is one to celebrate, it is just one example of the turbulent journey to colleges reopening both schools and students are preparing for. Universities are also attempting to balance state and city regulations. With the recent resurgence of COVID-19 rates, many of which have spiked in states that reopened preemptively, transitioning to a fully virtual fall semester or quarter seems like the logical solution. However, this plan is not as simple as that.

Private universities, especially middle-tier ones, depend heavily on the enrollment of international students. A majority of international students pay tuition in full so that they may earn an American education, and institutions use those funds for the financial aid of low-income students. The ebb and flow of tuition money throughout secondary education systems is interrelated. In this way, ICE’s policy directive threatened the very existence of private institutions, which rely on international tuition funds for functionality.

However, the threat of deportation is not the only issue at stake. For many students, the idea of taking a full course load online is not worth the money nor the time. Universities offering partially in-person reopening plans incentivize students to return, rather than take a leave of absence or enroll part-time. These hybrid plans, which allow students to choose between a return to campus or a remote education, have been extremely popular among private institutions that do not have the safety net of state funding for public schools or the lofty endowments of prestigious private schools.

Harvard University is one of the few who have been able to release a plan for the entire 2020-2021 school year. On a press release on July 6th, faculty announced that 100% of courses would be offered online and that only 40% of the undergraduate student body would be invited back to campus. The reopening of campus is mainly occurring to accommodate incoming freshmen who want the traditional college “experience.”

On the other side of the nation, the California State University system, which has 29 public college

campuses, committed to fully online fall courses nearly two months ago, on May 12th. While California has been experiencing significantly high COVID-19 rates, they also have the largest collection of public schools. According to Cal State University Chancellor Timothy White, it is “irresponsible to wait until August when there’s more information about the virus.” By that time, administrators, faculty members, and students would have to scramble to put together plans for instruction, housing, on-campus logistics, and class sizes, to name a few. However, committing to virtual instruction does not bear significant repercussions, like low enrollment or a massive loss of funds, at least for public schools. In the 2019-2020 school year, the state of California supported the Cal State University system with $7 billion in funding. In this case, state funding contributes significantly to the functionality of public schools; it even allows them to commit to lofty decisions months in advance.

Under these circumstances, educational institutions have based their decisions and reopening plans on finances rather than geography or the rates of COVID-19 cases statewide or locally. Take, for example, Stanford University, New York University (NYU), and Boston University; all of these universities are located in notable US cities and have announced plans for at least a partially in-person instruction for the fall.

With New York’s declining COVID-19 rates, NYU has announced their plan, NYU Returns, which encourages the return of students to campus with significant public health and safety protocols. The option of in-person or blended courses allows for the flexibility of students, but its location in the most populated city in the US raises concerns for a second wave, especially with a mass influx of students from different areas of the world. Stanford, on the other hand, is located in the heart of Silicon Valley and has created a unique approach to the issue of campus re-openings. While most instruction will be offered online, the issue of housing will alternate by quarters, with freshman, sophomores, and transfers living on campus in the fall, and upperclassmen during the winter and spring.

Even with these “foolproof” plans for social distancing and public health measures on campus, the mass numbers of students traveling to move onto campus or in surrounding areas will surely cause resurgences of the virus. Though colleges might be prepared, surrounding hospitals and medical providers are already at capacity.

Boston University (BU) is just one of approximately 35 colleges in the metropolitan area. Learn from Anywhere, Boston University’s reopening plan, is similar to New York University’s in that it allows students to opt for in-person instruction or virtual courses. A hub for secondary education, the months of August and September will undoubtedly bring about new cases, especially among young adults. In this sense, a majority of reopening plans have failed their medical community who will have to deal with the repercussions of for-profit educational institutions.

According to Boston University’s President Brown, the success of the fall semester will rely heavily on both the Learn from Anywhere strategy and an on-campus testing center. According to BU’s platform, the testing center allows the university to perform its own COVID-19 tests and determine how to proceed after results. The administration has developed stringent plans for residence halls, dining halls, public spaces, even going as far as to create a laundry schedule. However, there are still so many unanswered and unsolved questions: questions that should not be solved by trial. For example, how often are students being tested? How will the school and the community enforce social distancing outside of the classroom? If a professor falls ill, is there a backup plan? If the rates of contracted spike in Boston, will the university revert to fully online courses and will students be allowed to remain on campus?

Boston University is not the only institution at fault. Many colleges, especially private ones, are being forced to choose profit over public health. While this reopening plan, among many others, has dangerous holes, there are very few alternatives that could be made.

Now more than ever is the time to stop blaming institutions entirely and, instead, take personal responsibility. Universities can only do so much to protect its students. Students must now take what they have been given with the partial reopening of college campuses and do their part to minimize the spread of the virus.

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