In February 2020, higher education was on a roll. Students were in classes, the economy was growing, state budgets were looking good, and academia was a great place to be.
Enter the virus. By mid-March and early-April, everything changed. Campuses closed, residence halls emptied, courses converted to various forms of distance learning, and graduation ceremonies were cancelled. This was a situation none of us in academia had ever experienced or even imagined, and yet it was here. Colleges and universities handled this unprecedented turmoil about as well as anyone could expect. The pandemic had arrived, and the course of the virus was uncertain. The drive to protect students, faculty and staff was both appropriate and reasonable.
Fortunately, forward-thinking campuses had already been moving dramatically in the direction of high-quality distance learning. Zoom, Teams and other software platforms were swiftly catching on as academic content-delivery vehicles. For the business class I taught, it proved a quick and simple adjustment to Zoom to complete the semester. What was lost was a scheduled trip to New York City, a visit to the New York Stock Exchange and the camaraderie that trips like this entail. All of that went away, and my students were disappointed. Academic life had changed. And so it was all over the country and, indeed, around the world.
Summer school was easier to handle. Students had already been gravitating for years toward distance learning in the summer to allow for trips and employment. Colleges and universities had adjusted to this new reality with a bevy of distance offerings. It worked well and continued to do so in the summer of 2020.
By fall, COVID-19 numbers began to be more available. The data indicated that the virus posed little danger to the traditional college-age individual. Faculty and staff were a different matter. Although the numbers indicated that the over-65 and pre-existing condition groups were in the most danger, things could not just return to normal in the fall. Lots of distance learning, masks, virus testing, quarantines and many other measures became the order of the day. Faculty, students and staff rose to the occasion. Fall semesters moved forward at most institutions, and college educations continued.
In December 2020, in the midst of shut-downs, masks and quarantines, I appeared on Roby Brock’s Talk Business and Politics show and stated that the country would begin returning to normal in March 2021. I stuck my neck out on that prediction, but I’ll explain my reasoning below. Bear in mind, I am not a medical person. I am an economist. But economists love numbers, and this is the way I saw it.
In November 2020, a vaccine for the virus was approved. Wisely, supplies of the vaccine had been produced ahead of time for distribution beginning in December. Projections indicated that more than 100 million citizens would receive at least one dose by the end of March. By that time, more than 30 million Americans would have been documented to have had the virus and therefore have antibodies. Moreover, some medical experts estimated that two or three times as many may have actually had the virus. Add to this more than 110 million citizens aged 24 or below in the low-risk category, and the numbers would be inching toward 300 million in a country of 331 million. Certainly, there is some double counting, but the number of Americans still susceptible to the virus at that point would be small. As it turned out, the economy did actually begin to gather steam in March and is now surging.
This means that colleges and universities should be full speed ahead for the fall. Most have already made this decision. But things are going to be different. Students have adopted Zoom and many other virtual delivery mechanisms. Many will want to continue in a digital landscape. However, the on-campus experience is extremely valuable, and most students will want to avail themselves of all the campus has to offer. Clubs, organizations, athletic teams, bands and student-faculty relationships will carry the day because they are essential to the complete college experience. Students will return.
What we learned is how to better deal with an emergency like this in the future. The wheels of academia cannot just stop. We must carry on, and here in Arkansas, we did. I take my hat off to all who made it happen during an uncertain time and kept the students progressing toward their degrees.
David F. Rankin, Ph.D., MBA, CFA, is the president emeritus of Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, where he has served for 46 years. He is a former professor of finance and economics and dean of the College of Business at SAU, which now bears his name. An award-winning economist, Rankin is the author of What Every American Needs to Know About Economics, published in 2018. He still teaches classes at the university.