In this episode of Motley Fool Answers, Alison Southwick chats with Robert Brokamp about the future of college. They talk about how COVID-19 has changed education and what it will look like going forward. Learn about the challenges and concerns of students, parents, and colleges and much more.
Finally, they share some tips to keep you busy and entertained during the lockdown.
To catch full episodes of all The Motley Fool's free podcasts, check out our podcast center. To get started investing, check out our quick-start guide to investing in stocks. A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on May 18, 2020.
Alison Southwick: This is Motley Fool Answers. I'm Alison Southwick and I'm joined, as always, by professor Robert Brokamp, Personal Finance Expert here at The Motley Fool. Hey, Bro.
Robert Brokamp: Class is in session, everybody.
Southwick: Okay. Well, he may not actually be a professor, but he is a parent to five or six kids in college right now, so.
Brokamp: That we know of.
Southwick: [laughs] Who better to talk about the future of college after coronavirus than someone who is fully consumed by the topic. All that and more on this week's episode of Motley Fool Answers.
Brokamp: So, Alison, what's up?
Southwick: Well, Bro, I'm here with your goodish news, bad news report. So, let's get started. The goodish news is that, after a couple of choppy days in the market, we're seeing a bit of a rally this moment, this moment being Friday or Monday; no, today is Monday, time has lost all meaning.
Brokamp: It is Monday, May 18th.
Southwick: Monday, May 18th. Actually, and I haven't checked the market in the last hour, so I assume it's still rallying, Bro, when was the last time you checked it?
Brokamp: It's funny, I've been trying to ignore it a little bit more, because I spent so much of the last two months watching it too closely. It's my Spring resolution to only look a couple of times a day. But, yes, it is up significantly as of this taping.
Southwick: Alright, so. And if I understood it correctly, it's up because of some promising news of a vaccine. So, OK, that's some goodish news -- oh, wait, bad-ish news. Never mind that over 30 million people have lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus, but, hey, OK, some goodish news is that 77% expect to get their job back once this is all over. That's according to a poll by The Washington Post and Ipsos.
Oh, wait! back to bad news. The Washington Post worries that people might be a bit too optimistic about their chances for returning to work, citing a report from the Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago; they predict 42% of the recent layoffs from the pandemic will result in permanent job loss.
Okay. And some related goodish news, the Federal government is working on making some changes to the Paycheck Protection Program because of criticisms from business owners who say they can't tap the funds. According to the SBA [Small Business Administration] website, as cited by The Wall Street Journal, the initial tranche of $350 billion in loans ran out in April 16, after about two weeks, but three weeks after the second $310 billion tranche of funding was opened up, about 37% of the funds remain available. And that's, again, according to the SBA website.
I also want to pause here and just talk for a moment about the word, "tranche." Is there any better -- like, when you hear the word tranche, you're like, well, this person is a sophisticated businessperson, right? [laughs] Are there any more words than tranche that just say sophisticated business?
Brokamp: Isn't it French for branch or something like that, tube, I don't know, something like that?
Southwick: I don't know, it just means, I know what I'm talking about, business-to-business tranche. Alright. So, under the original term 75% of the funds were required to be spent on salaries for the loans to be forgiven, but of course, business owners are having a hard time paying salaries and also needing to pay to keep the lights on. So, anticipated changes include giving businesses more leeway on when and how they use the money.
Alright, here's some goodish news. If you're enjoying working from home, this may become an even more common option, because Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, has said that most employees for Twitter can work from home permanently. And Google [Alphabet] and Facebook are allowing employees to work from home until at least the end of the year.
Bro, does that news make you happy or sad about people working more remotely?
Brokamp: So, interesting question. If you were to ask me this, like, six weeks ago, I would have said sad, but I have to say I'm kind of getting used to it, so it makes me a little more happy these days.
Southwick: Alright. We're getting used to the new normal. How many times you hear the "new normal" now, ugh! Alright. And in the final bad news, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Uber is going to lay off 3,000 employees and shut down 45 offices, this represents roughly a quarter of its workforce, and this is on top of the 3,700 employees they laid off two weeks ago. Woof!
So, to end on some goodish news, I found a really good rye bread recipe, so I got that. I baked it in a Dutch oven; it's pretty good.
Anyway, that, Bro, is what's up.
Brokamp: College is a changin'. When you think of it, there are few environments in which it would be more difficult to practice social distancing than a college campus.
Thousands of people living together in cramped quarters, eating together in dining halls, packed in the classrooms and lecture halls, spending their Saturdays on football seasons, and well, all the other interacting that goes on at college. Consider that, as pointed out in a study recently --
Southwick: [laughs] ... not that any of your kids are doing any of that.
Brokamp: Not my kids.
Southwick: Your kids are all being very good. No, not your kids.
Brokamp: [laughs] Yeah. So, as pointed out in a study recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, "A single beer pong party where participants share drink glasses at an Austrian ski resort is credited with producing hundreds of infections in Denmark, Germany and Norway." So, one beer pong party leads to infections in several countries, just imagine what goes on in a college.
Another study by two Cornell University sociology professors found that over the course of a week, the average student shares a class with 4% of the student body, but 87% of the students are connected through two steps and 90% are only three steps removed. So, again, just think about all that stuff that's getting exchanged.
Southwick: [laughs] I don't want to think about all the stuff that's getting exchanged, Bro. Where are you going?
Brokamp: Well, I'm going and I'm telling you, and you all know this, college was built for contagion; at least as we previously knew college. But things are changing, and in this episode, we're going to answer four big questions about college after the coronavirus.
And that first question is, what happened this year?
So, this year nearly all campuses closed with the remainder of the year completed online. It's happened to my son. And as many people have found, online education is not the same thing as in-person education.
What happened to the money that students and parents paid?
Well, some schools refunded payments for room and board, but not tuition for the most part, which has resulted in more than 50 schools being sued by their students, mostly because, as I said, the quality of education and the educational experience wasn't as good. Plus, when you look at the price of admission for a college, it includes all kinds of amenities that students can use. So, from libraries, to labs, to gyms and of course the on-campus climbing walls and floating rivers.
Some schools already had online programs, and you can look on their website and you can see that they charge less for the online program. So, these students and their lawyers are saying, so you even show that the online experience is cheaper, so why aren't we getting more of our money back?
So far, most schools aren't budging, they argue that they still have to pay their professors; they've incurred additional costs, such as setting up their employees for remote work and helping students get back home, but perhaps the biggest reason they're not budging is that they're worried about what will happen over the course of the next year, which brings us to big question No. 2, and that is, what will happen in the Fall?
The American College Health Association issued some guidelines and they say, "Colleges can anticipate restrictions and limitations in activities for the next 12 to 18 months if not longer." So, something will have to change. But despite that, according to a tally maintained by The Chronicle of Higher Education, 64% of schools still plan to have in-person education. About 12% are still waiting to decide. Several have already decided for pretty much completely online in the Fall, including the University of California system, that involves 23 campuses and 500,000 students, the biggest school system in the country, and that includes UCLA and Berkeley, and they have decided that Fall semester will be completely online.
Some are coming up with a hybrid. But even though almost two-thirds of schools plan to open, campus life will look different than it did just a year ago. And most colleges still haven't unveiled their plans, there's still a lot in flux. So, the Freakonomics podcast did an episode on this and they found that one college president who has 46 tentative plans for what they're going to do in the Fall. So, all these contingencies. The uncertainty is partially due to the fact that that's not really totally up to them, they're going to have to adhere to whatever rules the governments put in place. So, consider that the state of Rhode Island expects any visitor to the state to self-quarantine for 14 days, so how will that play out in the Fall when out of state kids come to attend school.
So, that said, what could reopening look like?
Here are some of the many myriad plans that are being considered. So, first of all, what colleges are looking at doing is to "de-densify" their campuses and that's a quote, that's the word they've been using. So, basically all kinds of ways to make sure that people aren't gathered in such tight spaces. So, it could be just one kid to a dorm room. Could be for looking for larger spaces to teach classes. Maybe just assigned times in the dining halls or more takeout options.
When you think about how colleges are going to do this, you can actually see how some of this could benefit the local economy. So, let's say there's only one kid to a dorm room, where are they going to stay? They could stay in hotels, which have been battered during the downturn. Where are some big public spaces that are not being used that could be used, turned into classes where kids could sit farther apart? Movie theaters. Movie theaters are struggling, so colleges might start renting those out. Restaurants are hurting, so maybe part of the meal plan will be that some of your money could be used at a restaurant or some of the restaurants could set up, you know, takeout or food trucks or something like that.
Stanford is reportedly considering holding classes outdoors in tents.
Another big part of this will be regular testing and health screening on campus, as well as facilities to take care of the kids who are sick. Alright, let's say, you find someone does have the virus. Most schools don't want to send them back home because then you're just spreading it, so they're going to have to come up with facilities where to keep the kids until they recover.
Most schools are looking at some sort of a hybrid plan. So, some courses in-person, some online, with maybe kids coming on to campus on a rotational basis. Like, you come to school for a month, you do the most important experiential learning, like labs, maybe your projects, if you're an engineering student, but then you go home for other classes that are online.
It might be broken up by year. Harvard Medical School is requiring that all first-year students this year do all their classes online, so they won't have as many people on campus.
Another thing schools are looking at is cutting the semester short. So, Purdue is eliminating all Fall breaks, bringing people on to campus, but then sending them home by the Thanksgiving break and then the rest of the semester will be completed online.
Other things schools are looking at is to, sort of, lower the population on their campuses, having more of their staff work remotely. But having more maintenance staff to be cleaning just about everything, every day. In fact, Purdue is actually even looking at getting rid of doorknobs, so there are no doorknobs to touch, so people can't transmit the disease that way.
The other big question for college is college sports, which is a big enrollment draw and moneymaker for a lot of the schools. The biggest Fall sport, of course, is football, and right now they're looking at all kinds of options, from just doing it like they normally do it, to having the sport but no one in the stadium or just maybe a quarter of the people in the stadium, maybe moving the season to the Spring or just canceling it altogether. And some schools have announced that either they've canceled the season or they've eliminated their football program because it just wasn't worth the money.
Speaking of football, a little side note, so it's not just the schools that will suffer financially if they don't open, college towns will take a huge hit as well. And just this morning, The Wall Street Journal published an article on how much college towns will suffer, focusing particularly on Blacksburg, Virginia which is coincidentally where my son goes, the alma mater of many of Fools including --
Southwick: My husband.
Brokamp: That's right.
Southwick: Where my husband went to tech.
Brokamp: Yep. And Sam Whiteside, who's our Chief Wellness Fool, who's been on the show a few times, a lot of Virginia Tech alums at The Fool.
Anyways, according to the article, and this is true of many other college towns, Virginia Tech is responsible for more than half of Blacksburg's economy. Between 400,000 and 500,000 people visit the town each Fall just to watch the football games. So, you've got all those businesses relying on that, the cities where they get their tax base from sales tax and things like that. So, there's a lot riding on schools reopening.
But just because schools reopen doesn't mean every kid will show up. Surveys and estimates indicate that 15% to 20% of students are reconsidering attending college in the Fall, that includes an estimated 30% of international students, who are very valuable to universities, because not only are they more likely to pay full freight, international students actually pay more than the full price.
So, put it all together, and one estimate indicates that schools collectively will lose $23 billion in revenue from lower enrollment next year.
So, why are kids reconsidering going to college? Well, of course, there's the health concerns, either their own concerns or it's their parents, their parents don't want them going into all that close proximity with all those other kids.
But there's also the financial concerns. A lot of people have been financially hit during this pandemic. According to a Sallie Mae survey of high school juniors and seniors and their parents, 30% of people are worried that they're going to have to tap their college savings, not for college, but to pay for bills today. And 30% are also concerned about parents losing their jobs and will they be able to pay for college.
But the biggest concern is that colleges won't be fully open, and families don't want to pay full price or take out huge loans for less than the full college experience.
Getting back to the conundrum for colleges, on top of lost tuition, schools are also anticipating cuts in government support, both in terms of states as well as lost research grants. Many states have already told their colleges that they're not going to get as much money this year. And then all the lost revenue from the delayed or canceling sporting events.
Colleges generally did get money from the CARES Act. And then, of course, many of them do have endowments, but a lot of people really overestimate how big endowments are. There are the handful that have $10 billion, $20 billion, $30 billion -- Stanford, Princeton, Harvard -- those folks with their endowments are $1 million, $2 million, $3 million per student, but the vast majority of colleges, majority, their endowments are only less than $50,000 per student. So, they can't just tap their endowment to pay for everything, plus there are actually a lot of rules around how you spend your endowment. And then lots of endowments are invested in illiquid assets, real estate, private equity, hedge funds. So, they wouldn't be able to tap that money anyhow. So, endowments are not going to come to the rescue. And actually, a few smaller private schools have already said they're going to close next year, they're not going to be able to survive.
Brokamp: Yeah. So, that's the hard reality of college in the age of corona. Which brings us to the big question No. 3.
What should students and their parents do?
So, first of all, if you received any money back from college this year and that money was originally in a college savings account, like, a 529 or covered out, you can put it back in the account, and actually you should, since it's considered a distribution. And if it's not used for higher education expenses, it'll be taxed and penalized. You actually have until July 15th or 60 days after you received the refund, whichever is later, to redeposit that money, visit the website of your 529 plan, there should be instructions somewhere about how to get the money back into the plan.
As for next year, the first thing to do is find out what your college is planning to do. Many of them, including many of them here in Virginia, have said that they are hoping to reopen but they're going to announce their final plans in mid-June, so stay tuned.
If in-person learning will resume, you have to ask yourself, are you comfortable with the school's plan, are you comfortable with your kid going into that environment? I think a lot of that will depend on how far your kid is from home. My kids will be two to four hours from home, if something happens, we can get them. My first year of college, after growing up in Florida, was in Minnesota. And if I had a kid going 2,000 or 3,000 miles away, I might feel a little less comfortable about that.
If your school is only going to be offering online-only classes, are you willing to pay the price, are you willing to pay full freight for an online education? For some people the answer is going to be, "no." For other people, they're going to say, "yes," because frankly they want to either get the credits out of the way or because they want the name behind the college. And in the end, when you get that degree, it's not going to say whether you did it online or in-person, you have your name on the degree.
And speaking of money, by the way, if your financial circumstances have changed significantly since you originally applied for aid, contact the school and let them know, they know that many people have lost their jobs, that their 529 accounts are down, they might be willing to accommodate you and get you more aid, they're also going to be pinched but they have set -- many of them are aware that these calls are going to be coming and they've set some money aside.
What if you decide not to go to school this year, what are some of the alternatives?
Well, one, most kids are considering just staying home for a semester or two, maybe take some online classes at the local junior college, get some of the electives out of the way, save some money. Some do a gap year, I'm a big fan of gap years, my oldest daughter did a gap year. She learned how to deliver babies in a small village in Bali. The problem is, most gap years involve some sort of travel, most of them international travel, which is likely not going to be available come the Fall. In fact, many gap year programs have closed down already and said they're not going to be open for the next school year.
That said, there are domestic programs, most commonly known is AmeriCorps. Some kids, aware of the fact that there is an election coming up, are deciding to defer going to college and instead are going to volunteer on a campaign. Great idea, especially if you're going to be volunteering for the guy I'm going to vote for. Not telling you who that is, by the way.
But whatever you do, if you do plan to defer, you got to find out about your school's process. For some schools, the deadline to differ is already passed, some of them have extended the deadline, but some schools have said that they're not going to honor every deferral request. So, if you decide not to go this year, you have to reapply next year.
Which brings us to a group of people who, I think, really could be harmed by all of this, and that is today's high school juniors. With many current seniors deferring their enrollment, they're going to be fewer spots open for them, plus they won't be able to do a lot of the extracurriculars that you used to put on your application to make it look so good, because a lot of those activities have been closed down. So, I have a lot of sympathy for those kids.
And then finally you have to ask, do you really need a college degree? There's a solid handful of people at The Motley Fool who don't have college degrees. They knew what they wanted to do and they found a way to get those skills and they got a job. The Motley Fool is a pretty open minded place, so not every employer is that way, and not every profession is going to say, "Yes, you couldn't be a doctor without a college degree," for example. But if you know what you want to do and it doesn't require a college degree, you might ask yourself, whether instead you should try to just get some additional skills, maybe do an internship, maybe do something like that and move straight into the workforce.
Which brings us to the big question No. 4. Does this change the future of higher education?
So, before the virus crisis, enrollment was already down and people were beginning to question the value of college education. We've all heard the stats about student loans, the vast majority of kids have them, and many people graduate -- in fact, if you look at a study of people who've graduated, entered the workforce and have student loans, the majority of them say, the loans weren't worth it and they wished they had done something different.
I don't know what's going to happen, but there was a very provocative article published in the New York Magazine, you could find it in NYmag.com, by Scott Galloway, the NYU Professor, Author and Podcaster. And I'm just going to read one paragraph from that article.
"The post-pandemic future ..." he says, "... will entail partnerships between the largest tech companies in the world and elite universities. MIT@Google. iStanford. HarvardxFacebook. According to Galloway, these partnerships will allow universities to expand enrollment dramatically by offering hybrid online-offline degrees, the affordability and value of which will seismically alter the landscape of higher education."
He also pointed out, really, it's just amazing how much money people pay for a college education. You know, he's a professor at NYU and he had this in the article during the interview. He said, "I'll have 170 kids in my brand-strategy class in the Fall. We charge them $7,000 per student. That's $1.2 million that we get for 12 nights of me in a classroom. $100,000 a night. The gross margins on that offering are somewhere between 92% and 96%. There is no other product in the world that's been able to sustain 90-plus points of margin for this long at this high of a price point."
So, I don't know if Galloway is right, but I do know something has to change, right? College has just become too expensive, the amount of college debt is more than doubled over the past decade to where it's now much more than credit card debt, it's unsustainable and, in my opinion, in many ways immoral. So, will this crisis end up being, sort of, the turning point when many kids decide they don't want to go into debt to watch a Zoom class and instead find some other way to get the skills they need for the careers they want? Or will the tech giants step in to find cheaper, more efficient ways to provide an education. Online education, obviously, has been going on for well over a decade, maybe this is the point where it pushes more kids into doing it, especially if it's at a much lower price point.
So, I don't know what's going to happen, I think kids will always want the traditional college experience: dorms, sports, clubs, getting away from their parents, all that stuff. But I do think the ivory tower industrial complex is ripe for disruption, and perhaps this crisis will spur on some necessary innovation.
Southwick: [laughs] Well, have you guys decided what you're going to do? Because I know I joke that you have five or six kids in college, and it probably feels like that at times, but you have a son who's starting his sophomore year, and then a daughter who's starting her freshman year. What do you guys going to do?
Brokamp: Right. And I have my wife who's getting her PhD online. So, I'll just go in order of age. My wife is very happy with her program. She's going to get her degree in a year, but it was much, much, much more affordable than in-person. If we had to pay in-person prices for it, we'd feel differently about it.
My son already went to college this year. He was at Virginia Tech till, I guess, March, made friends, got roommates for an apartment next year, so even if Virginia Tech goes completely online, he and his friends are still going to live in that apartment and just do all their classes from the rooms, but still have something close to a college experience. I don't know if there will be the football games and all that stuff, but I think taking classes in our basement, he's had about enough of that. So, I think he's going to go.
Our daughter who would be a freshman at William & Mary is a different story, because I think that first year of college is so important, where you go through all orientation, all the goofy things you do with your RA. So, you meet people, you join clubs, all of that. Like, to miss out on that and to just do classes online, we're looking at alternatives for her. But at this point William & Mary is saying, they plan to reopen, but things are going to be different. If they were to say to us, you have to reapply next year if you don't come this year then we'd have some decisions we have to make.
Southwick: Yeah. I think of how at The Fool we've hired, I don't know, 30 people since we've been all fully remote. And for us, we knew each other before, obviously, we went fully remote, so we have a rapport, we know each other, it's great. If I need you, I can Slack you and be, like, "Hey, can we just chat?" whatever. But I feel so sorry for these 30 Fools who have started and all they know is the online Zoom relationships with their coworkers. I mean, it's just, ugh! I feel so, but of course, I'm also not doing anything to reach out to them and welcome them to the company, so that's all though on me.
Brokamp: [laughs] I am of the firm belief that, maybe as much as 80% of the value of college comes from the in-person experience, not from the classes. Partially because the majority of the classes that you take, you learn something, read a book, memorize some facts and then you never use them again. So, to spend a lot of money for a liberal arts online degree, to me, just doesn't feel worth it.
Southwick: So much about college is just learning how to learn. Like, learning how to make friends, learning how to read a book, right? Like, I think of the classes that I took, and I'm like, ugh! I didn't take, I mean, I was a liberal arts major, so maybe it's probably different if you are not a liberal arts major. But I know, for me, it's like thinking back to any of my classes where I learned really practical things that I use today, it's not a long list, but I did learn a lot and it was an amazing experience and I wouldn't change it for anything.
Brokamp: Right. But if you listed your 10 best experiences from college even if it's the things you learned or the experiences you enjoyed the most, those could not be replicated online for the most part.
Southwick: Yeah. I mean, flip-cup is just not the same on Zoom. It is not.
Alright. Well, let's talk about our recommendations for this week, because I've got a good one.
Brokamp: Oh, well then, by all means, you kick it off.
Southwick: So, we wake up Saturday morning and my daughter comes, you know, kind of, I don't know, whatever noise a kid makes when they come into your bedroom, but excited, in the morning. And she's like, mama, mama, mama, there's something new on Netflix. And do you know what's now on Netflix? Avatar: The Last Airbender is now on Netflix.
So, yes, I mean if you had Nickelodeon, you could watch it before, but now it's on Netflix and everybody has Netflix, right? Okay. So, I don't have to sell you two on this show, but for our listeners out there, this is a show that ran, I guess, in the, what the 00s, the 90s, I don't even know when it was on air, because I only was introduced to it a couple of years ago. But it's called Avatar: The Last Airbender, it's a kids' cartoon, but it's for everyone. And everyone should drop what they're doing and go watch it. If you love worldbuilding and borrowing heavily from eastern cultures, it's great, it's a great show. So, go watch it, Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Brokamp: I second that recommendation, especially if you have kids. So, I'm just going to reiterate something I recommended before but with some scientific support, and that is, taking a walk. I walk one to two hours a day, listening to all kinds of podcasts. And I just read an article in The Wall Street Journal today, although it's from April, but I didn't see it until today, supporting the scientific reasons why we should all be walking.
So, I'll just read a little bit from the article. "Walking benefits us on many levels, physical and psychological, walking helps us produce protein molecules ..." could you imagine " ... in muscle and brain that help repair wear-and-tear. These muscle and brain molecules -- myokines and neurotrophic factors." I don't know if I got those pronounced right.
Rick Engdahl: Woo! Myokines. Woooo!
Southwick: Everyone stopped listening, like, 30 seconds ago, so don't worry about it. [laughs]
Brokamp: Okay. So, I'll just summarize. Walking is good for you, your brain, your muscles, your creativity. Studies show that people who take a walk and then do a creativity test, perform better than people who are not walking. Walking, it's for everybody. Alright, are you happy now?
Engdahl: Wow! you should probably also drink water. [laughs]
Southwick: What's your take on breathing, Bro? What's your hot take there?
Engdahl: So, in case you didn't already know, I'm a bit of a nerd and so I'm raising nerdy kids. And my 13-year-old son has decided to start DM-ing a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with me and my wife and his sister, our daughter. So, that is our new thing. And I recommend it, it's awesome. We just started, we made our characters and we started on our adventure and we're looking forward to playing at least once a week, so I would recommend that to anybody who's got a family.
Brokamp: So, for the non-geeks out there, DM-ing is not direct messaging.
Southwick: It's not direct messaging, no.
Engdahl: No, and technically it's GM-ing, because we're not actually playing the Dungeons & Dragons system, we're doing one called Dungeon World which is a little different somehow, but whatever, it's all the same. Role playing games, good for families, not just for teenagers in basements; which is where I got my start. [laughs]
Brokamp: Do you want to explain -- the DM is the Dungeon Master who's like in-charge of everything.
Engdahl: They're the kind of master storyteller and everybody else is a character in that story, and you all, kind of, really tell the story together, but you have your narrator type -- doesn't matter. You know, if you want to get into it, there's plenty of information online to figure out how to start playing. And your kids probably already know, so get on it, it's a fun family activity.
Southwick: Well, that's the show. It's edited roguishly by Rick Engdahl. Our email is Answers@Fool.com. Anything else we want to say? No. No. We're good. Alright.
For Robert Brokamp, I'm Alison Southwick, stay Foolish, everybody!