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As the pandemic upends higher education, is residential college worth the cost?

The pandemic has upended the traditional model of higher education, particularly for residential colleges. As many schools announce plans to charge full tuition while continuing with remote learning, some students and parents are questioning whether the price is worth it. Hari Sreenivasan reports on a new effort to rethink the value, and the cost, of traditional college in the coronavirus era.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The pandemic, for now, anyway, has upended the traditional model of higher education, and particularly for residential colleges.

    As many schools announce plans to charge full tuition, while continuing with remote education, some are questioning what those tuition dollars are actually paying for, and if it's worth it.

    Hari Sreenivasan reports now on a new effort to rethink the value and the cost of the traditional four-year experience in the COVID-19 era.

    His story is part of our Rethinking College series.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Before the pandemic, leaving home and moving into a college dorm was a rite of passage for many young adults.

  • Student:

    You have a desk that comes with the room.

  • Student:

    I'm just now getting around to posting my dorm room tour.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Some students even took to YouTube to share their campus experiences. But late-night pizza runs, the freshman 15, studying on the quad, none of those things can happen easily online.

  • Cyan D’Anjou:

    I really like where I am right now. It's super close to the dining hall.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Stanford student Cyan D'Anjou is one of those who enjoyed documenting dorm life, and is now missing it.

  • Cyan D’Anjou:

    The residential experience, for myself and a lot of students my — like, around my age, it's the first time where we're starting to build new skills, build new relationships, really have our independence and make decisions for ourselves.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now, as she heads into her junior year, when most of her classes will be remote, D'Anjou says she's questioning the value of that educational experience, and she may take some time off.

  • Cyan D’Anjou:

    When we're making this decision, whether the tuition we're paying is worth it, yes, the classes are there, and they are valuable, but it's about the entire experience. It's about having a diverse class of people, a diverse set of interests that are talking to you.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    While D'Anjou and many other students around the country are debating how to approach this era of remote learning, there is little debate that getting a four-year degree is generally worth it, with significantly higher lifetime earnings for most.

    But the cost of those degrees has skyrocketed, roughly doubling over the past several decades, leading to more than $1.6 trillion in national student loan debt. Over the years, those costs and other factors have made the residential college experience inaccessible for many lower-income and students of color.

    So, now, in the new COVID era, when so much is being upended in higher education, some are arguing there's no better time to rethink what college looks like after the pandemic.

  • Richard Arum:

    The model of higher education that we are delivering in the U.S. has been based on this residential experience that costs about twice what an education costs in Europe.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    That's Richard Arum, dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine.

    Last September, he and his colleagues began a first-of-its-kind study to try and better understand the value and cost of a four-year liberal arts education, where students often live on or near campus and are exposed to a wide variety of subjects.

  • Richard Arum:

    We believe that there's something about the residential college experience that is useful for human development and growth for these students. Whether that's worth $10,000, $20,000, $40,000 a year in addition for four years is an open question.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The study, which is funded by the Mellon Foundation, also a "NewsHour" supporter, is tracking a diverse cohort of 1,200 UCI students over three years to learn how they are learning and what aspects of their education help them to succeed.

    Arum says that what makes the project so unique is the type of data being collected, about 100 different metrics, ranging from weekly surveys on mental health and stress to tracking time spent in online classes.

  • Richard Arum:

    I think it's possible, given the complexity of the data, to attempt to get at that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    On a recent afternoon, Arum and his team met virtually to go over new survey results.

  • Luise von Keyserlingk:

    Sixty-two percent of the students reported that they do have new responsibilities.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Their early data showed students were less engaged with online studies when they reported the lack of a quiet study space and new family responsibilities at home. That kind of information was immediately helpful for Michael Dennin, the university's vice provost for teaching and learning.

  • Michael Dennin:

    That really has to inform how we advise our faculty, how we train them this summer to think about their teaching, because we're not used to thinking about all the other stuff that's going on outside of their courses.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Michelle Cooper is also thinking about the future.

  • Michelle Cooper:

    We want colleges and universities to really rethink their business model, rethink how they serve students, and rethink how they deliver an education.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    She's the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy and one of the leaders of a national group now studying the economic and non-economic returns of education after high school.

    Cooper says, there needs to be more awareness that the benefits of a residential college experience were not accessible to everyone.

  • Michelle Cooper:

    Social capital that's provided through these sort of traditional brick-and-mortar residential colleges is something that many people have always known was there, but never really talked about in a very up-front and open way.

    That is certainly something that we have seen many low-income students struggle with. If you are attending a community college, and you kind of go to school, and you go back home or you go to work, like, you don't know where to often go to, to establish those relationships with individuals who can help you get that leg up in employment.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    That was the experience of Walter Ramirez, who became the first in his family to graduate from college in June.

    He spent several years at a community college before transferring to U.C.-Irvine and living on campus. He says the connections he made there have given him a big boost as he prepares to enter the workplace.

  • Walter Ramirez:

    Here at U.C.-Irvine, I learned how to talk to professors, and work with them on a research project, or ask if I could assist them with a research project. And that's how I started building relationships with professors.

    And, eventually, they began to support me with letters of recommendation for scholarships or internship opportunities, or even job applications.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For his part, Richard Arum says he hopes his study will help students and colleges better understand what aspects of the residential college experience are important to preserve, and what could be tweaked to bring down costs and expand access, issues that are more relevant than ever.

  • Richard Arum:

    It's quite likely that the economy that comes out of this crisis is going to look structurally different than the one we started with.

    The post-secondary system is going to be responsible, not just for educating the same number of students we have in the past, but dramatically more students.

    We need to experiment. We need to innovate to ensure work force development and economic competitiveness for our society.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Arum and his team plan to release initial results from their study in the fall.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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