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Has higher education learned any lessons from the pandemic? | COMMENTARY

Loyola University Maryland junior Martin Csongradi, sitting inside of one of Loyola's modular classrooms, said it was a relief to have some classes on campus this semester, although a bit unnerving. Loyola University Maryland decided to allow some in-person learning after being closed in the fall.
Loyola University Maryland junior Martin Csongradi, sitting inside of one of Loyola's modular classrooms, said it was a relief to have some classes on campus this semester, although a bit unnerving. Loyola University Maryland decided to allow some in-person learning after being closed in the fall. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

The pandemic has struck higher education in the gut. And now it stands shaken, confused and hoarding hand sanitizer. Forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities begrudgingly moved away from the sanctity of lecture halls and transitioned to operating behind webcams. Now, as our nation begins to build immunity and we slowly reopen our vibrant campuses and grandiose halls, higher education is scrambling to re-assemble itself to its former glory. There is no denying that our educational system’s very foundation, one which was built up over centuries of tradition, is ill-equipped for the situation in which it currently finds itself. While operating in a hybrid format, universities presently have to plan for an unknown future, possibly filled with vaccination passports, lawsuits, mandatory testing, and COVID-19 outbreaks.

However, from the age-old caps and gowns we wear to the dusty podiums we lecture from, if I have learned anything in my career, the American higher education system is resistant to change. Higher education has continually perpetuated an almost stoic image of itself, carefully showcased through historic traditions tied to ancient academia. Yet, even before this pandemic, it was common knowledge that society was evolving while higher education remained attached to staying the same. Seen through the increased demand for online education, the trend to learn from home has become an ever-present and growing part of America’s educational infrastructure. A 2018 report from the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics found that, of the almost 20 million students enrolled in higher education, nearly 35.3% were enrolled in online courses. What was once a niche market of virtual and online education is quickly becoming a popular learning method. This new model of virtual learning is increasingly favored by non-traditional students and distance learners.

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In the past, higher education access has always been a condition of geographic proximity and has required the on-campus or near-campus existence of students, staff and faculty. At the same time, with increased operation costs and decreased federal and state funding, institutions have had to innovate in revenue generation and utilize other means to earn money. Simply put, higher education evolved from being solely composed of educators to now wearing multiple hats as landlords, restaurateurs and bankers. With economic inequality being one of the most significant barriers to higher education, the total cost versus actual value of a college degree has been questioned. Not only do students ask these questions, but the media has placed colleges and universities under scrutiny, asking if higher education is worth the skyrocketing costs of tuition, fees, room and board.

However, I believe that we now have an opportunity to look beyond this cataclysmic pandemic and rebuild an educational system that embraces cost-saving measures such as distance learning and hybrid models of operation. I predict that as a result of our forced transition to online education, more and more students, staff and faculty will break away from the stigma that they must exist within the physical bubble of an institution and discover that knowledge can be shared across vast distances. I believe that we will find new and innovative ways to teach using our virtual tools and cultivate an academic environment where high-quality education no longer requires the daily on-campus pilgrimage of every student, staff and faculty.

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Like many of my colleagues, I am terrified of this unknown territory in which we currently find ourselves. Over the past year, I have spent much of my time figuring out how to continue engaging my students while existing in exile from my campus. Yet, I have come to accept that everything has and will continue to change due to this world-altering experience. In the end, I hope my fellow educators also see this as an opportunity to embrace a new wave of educational reform which will allow us to open the virtual doors of our schools to anyone, regardless of their income level or geographic location. In closing, I believe that Horace Mann’s often quoted statement that education exists as a “great equalizer” says much of education’s true purpose. Therefore, colleges and universities must take what they have learned over the past year and find new and innovative ways to shape the American higher education system — building new bridges for people to reach our schools and making a college degree achievable through the click of a mouse.

Gregory A. Brightbill (GregoryBrightbill@gmail.com) is associate director of Student Leadership and Involvement at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

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