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Will Universities Learn from Lockdowns?

The COVID-19 crisis is likely to bring about further rapid and far-reaching shifts in the economic ground beneath us. But we need not view these changes with dread if the pandemic also propels a transition to better and more universal higher education.

CAMBRIDGE – Will COVID-19 finally trigger a long-overdue technological disruption of higher education? Throughout the world, sudden mid-semester lockdowns aimed at combating the pandemic forced universities to switch to distance learning almost overnight. But while this rapid transition has been tough for faculty and students alike, some good might yet come of it.

Like many businesses, universities are struggling with how to reopen and are adopting a range of strategies. For example, the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom has announced that its lectures will be online-only until at least the summer of 2021. Others, including Stanford University, are offering a mix of in-person and online classes, as well as spreading out their academic year so that fewer students will be on campus at any time.

Make no mistake: COVID-19 represents a massive economic hit to higher education. Dorm rooms are unoccupied, sports stadiums remain empty, and students push back against paying full tuition fees. For many colleges and universities, the drop in revenue from foreign students, especially Chinese, is likely to be painful; numerous smaller and less-endowed schools may close.