Students at the University of Washington on campus for the last day of in-person classes on March 6, 2020 in Seattle, Washington.
Karen Ducey—Getty Images
Ideas
May 1, 2020 11:01 AM EDT
Todd Rose is co-founder and president of Populace and the best-selling author of the The End of Average and co-author of Dark Horse. He is also a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he founded the Laboratory for the Science of Individuality.

May 1. For many Americans, it’s any other day on the calendar. But for hundreds of thousands of graduating high school seniors and their families, it’s a date they have been working toward for the past two years minimum, a date that will determine the direct, daily experiences of their next four, a date that can shape personal financial and career prospects well into the future.

It’s college decision day — the deadline for signaling your commitment to attend the campus of your choice in the fall, accompanied by a sizable and nonrefundable deposit check.

And for all the students and families weighing this choice this year, I have just one message: Don’t do it, at least not without a better understanding of what’s on offer.

Let me be clear. I’m someone who believes deeply, and benefited immeasurably, from a post-secondary education. I also happen to be a Harvard professor. But the pandemic has upended traditional social contracts in every facet of waking life, and colleges and universities are not immune. Far from it. The pandemic has revealed real weaknesses that have been plaguing the system for years.

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Consider that as landlords around the country are forgiving rents, cash-strapped restaurants are repurposing kitchens to feed health care workers, and even the dreaded cable companies are adding gigabytes to family data plans in a small show of solidarity, colleges have proven flagrantly incapable of rising to the moment.

Universities should be utilizing their vast resources to make their programs more amenable to today’s crop of stressed-out students by lowering costs, allowing for more tailored, individualized course plans, and breaking up the standard four-year model. But what are they doing?

From refusing tuition reimbursement for curtailed semesters to not being able to provide plans for campus housing in the fall or even sharing the bare-minimum details of their own online learning capabilities beyond the stopgap they have in place now, the colleges and universities that make up America’s higher-education system are providing prospective students with plenty of reason to revisit one basic question: Is a traditional four-year college experience, and all that it entails, really what best fits your needs?

For generation after generation, Americans have played the same game in the belief that traditional higher ed was the only gateway to opportunity. We agreed to SAT tests on a bell curve that did little to determine talent. Now standardized tests across the nation are canceled, and many colleges are ignoring the scores altogether. We agreed to a system based on a false scarcity of slots at “elite” institutions. Now most universities are going to struggle to fill their incoming freshman classes and are facing strained budgets with out-of-state and international tuition reaching historic lows and athletic programs shuttered.

In a small act of defiance, if you are preparing to accept at a university, tell them you’re willing to go, but that you won’t send a check until you know exactly what you’re getting for that money. The consumers can realize that they have leverage over the suppliers.

It’s high time we rethought the role traditional higher education plays in our society. We have been conditioned to believe that enrolling in a four-year degree program at the “best” university possible — often regardless of its affordability — is in our best interest and will pay dividends later on. This is false.

Coming on the heels of a nationwide admissions scandal, the pandemic has pulled back the curtain on how even the most revered institutions in higher ed have major flaws in how they select students and educate them.

Students have more choice than they realize right now. The pandemic has created an environment in which the market has switched and the power is now in the hands of students, rather than administrators, to determine what the future of higher education looks like. High school seniors do not have to trap themselves by committing to a debt burden that far exceeds their parents’ salaries (if they have them at all) for online courses at a top-tier university, especially when most of those general education classes could be taken for a fraction of the cost at a local community college. Students will be able to determine what their education looks like.

Higher education was once seen as a social imperative. Now its modus operandi is in jeopardy. We should use this pandemic as an opportunity to make changes to our higher education system and begin to focus on preparing students for the post-COVID, 21st century economy, not one that hasn’t existed for decades.

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