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Did you hear that? It was the sound of academia’s lifeless corpse thudding against the ground, having finally succumbed to COVID-19. Higher education had a preexisting condition, you see.
Bryan Caplan is known for his signaling theory of college education: A college education is valuable because of what it signals, and not because of the learning it involves. If this is true, it’s only part of the truth. A college degree may be valuable mainly as a credential, but college is more than just the degree. Why didn’t online education kill the four-year college? If the university is just a credentialing mechanism, won’t any credentialing mechanism do? Well, no. As it turns out, an online education isn’t a perfect substitute for the value provided by a conventional university education — or, at least, it wasn’t until coronavirus came along.
I chose to attend a college for three reasons, only one of which had anything to do with credentialing. First (and foremost), I went to college because I was a reasonably good student from an upper-middle-class family, and going to college is what reasonably good students from upper-middle-class families do. Second, I went to college to find friends. Not satisfied with the cramped social scene of a generic suburban high school, I threw my lot in with the homeschoolers and archaisms of Hillsdale. I also went to college to learn something and train myself for a lucrative career — until I decided that the sciences weren’t for me and kissed my future earnings goodbye. But my personal history is beside the point. What’s important is that my interest in furthering my career was only a part of the calculation I made when I chose a college. People think it’s shallow to say this, but it does matter more than they’d care to admit.*
Now, thanks to the ongoing pandemic, having a social life is all but illegal. It’s possible — likely, even — that most colleges will extend online-only education for at least another semester. And even those institutions which do allow flesh-and-blood teaching will bar most of their social events. No more clubs, football games, and movie nights. Stay away from the cafeteria!
The response to coronavirus has, in effect, removed the brick-and-mortar university’s competitive edge. Why pay truckloads of money to sit alone in a far-away dorm room and take classes online, when I can pay mere wagonloads of money to sit alone in my childhood bedroom and take classes online?
Before coronavirus, the university was the only half-functioning institution in American life that still built real social networks, as opposed to the simulacra of social networks the Internet specializes in. (Sorry, Ricochetti.) For the time being, building social networks is verboten. So, what good is that sub-Ivy school which has been soliciting me? As long as I can take in the information I need to graduate with my desired credential, I’m golden — or as golden as I can be in the middle of a depression.
Nothing good can come of this. Colleges and universities will close. Those which don’t close will limp along, maimed by a lack of funding and by unfavorable cost-benefit calculations by their would-be students. Scores of unemployed (and unemployable) Ph.D.s will be unleashed upon the land. There are optimists who predict that this pandemic will shock American civil society back into life. I’m far gloomier. I can’t foresee any outcome except an acceleration of the trends already enfeebling western civilization: more fragmentation, more loneliness, more hopelessness — and an indefinite extension of an already prolonged adolescence. Finding a job, owning property, marrying, having kids — all these trappings of bourgeois life, already endangered, will fall victim to a simple path-dependency problem: You can’t get there from here when you’re cowering in your basement, binge-watching Netflix dramas.
* A caveat: The more elite the college or university, the more social the value it provides. Conversely, the less elite the college or university, the more economic the value it provides. People go to community colleges for skills or credentials; they attend elite colleges for the social opportunities.Published in