Slowly but surely, more and more colleges are scheduling a return to campus for the Fall, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and a predicted “second wave” when the weather turns colder.

The University of Notre Dame was one of the first to announce a return — they have 74,933 reasons to do so for each student:

Source: University of Notre Dame website

Most college kids (mine included) were sent home around mid-March this year. Shortly thereafter, a lot of parents probably started doing some math… “What are we paying for if Junior is just staring at a laptop screen in our living room?”

What’s that ivory tower in the background worth?

Sure, most universities pro-rated room and board charges and sent a refund check to parents, but tuition for virtual learning was still taking a big bite out of their actual wallet.

Without the trappings of college… the football and basketball games, dorm life, the frat and sorority parties, homecoming weekend… why should someone fork over 30, 40, 50, 60, even 70-grand a year so Junior can get his degree?

Heck, online schools like Southern New Hampshire U. offer a lot of the same programs at a fraction of the cost, and the kid would still be staring at the same laptop screen. Those schools have been doing online courses for a long time too, so the programming is more polished, and the student experience is probably better. Kids are getting used to learning stuff via videos anyway… maybe instead of dropping $70K at ND, you can just pay $50 a month for a good wi-fi connection, and send the kids to YouTube U.

I’m not saying kids will drop out of college in droves, but I am saying the pandemic is a wake-up call for higher education. They’re realizing they need to up their game, and show a better ROI than “prestige”… especially when they’re competing for a smaller pool of students:

U.S. demographics are also shifting. The number of high school graduates is flat — and in some cases declining — because of lower birth rates about 20 years ago. Those numbers are also projected to decline, so the trend of fewer students coming from high school isn’t going away anytime soon.

From this NPR article, December 2019 (pre-pandemic)

You can’t spell “pandemic” without “panic” and my hunch is a lot of college administrators are getting a bit worried about a serious outbreak of tuition attrition.

It’s no laughing matter now…

Maybe all these colleges have a thoroughly vetted plan for bringing kids back to campus in a couple of months and keeping them safe. But some of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks so far have been in prisons, and the dorms at most colleges have a pretty similar layout. (I know firsthand about the latter… not the former. Honest!) I have a hunch that a lot of schools are basing back-to-school on a wing and a prayer… and “business as usual” is more about the health of their business than it is about the health of their students.