The Cloud

The Future of College is Virtually Unknown

Last month my family and I received an email we had been dreading.

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Last month my family and I received an email we had been dreading. The subject line seemed fairly innocuous Fall 2020 Updated Housing Options, but it delivered the message that our 18-year-old daughter would not be spending her Freshman year at college on campus. And indeed she may not be attending the school she thought she would at all. 

(This is a personal anecdote and preamble to technical and fiscal analysis of college readiness for virtual school. If you'd like to skip forward, feel free.)


Applying to college

For those readers who haven't yet gone through the college application process (or for those for whom it has been a while), Fall of a high school student's Senior year is where the mad dash begins. In addition to regular school duties (homework, testing, etc.) a whole new set of activities is added to the schedule in the form of college research, scheduling of tours, taking (or retaking the SAT), and — in the case of prospective art students — creation of the portfolio. 

Anxiety around rejection and the stress of multiple application windows and various criteria runs high. After all, it's only a decision that affects all future job opportunities and the decision around what you want to do for the rest of your life, right?  Hyperbole aside, for most of the millions of newly minted adults, applying for college — and the resulting acceptance or rejection — is the biggest thing they have ever had to tackle. 

 By late Winter/early Spring — let's say early March — everyone finally knows where they got in, where they didn't, and what their plans for the Fall will be. Then COVID-19 hit.

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When COVID-19 infections reached the point in mid-March that the United States (in many areas) effectively shutdown, we were watching along with the rest of the world. We had no idea what the impact would be, but in California, both of our kids moved to virtual school at home, and we learned that our daughter, would, then wouldn't, then would, then wouldn't, then would (but it would be virtual) have a graduation ceremony. Things changed daily. No one in our house was thinking about college in the Fall.

 But colleges clearly were. At the college our daughter was applying to, we had up until August 1st to pay for the first semester of tuition, a hefty sum even with us lucky enough to qualify for some scholarships and have saved some money over the year. All the communication to-date had been that college would be on campus (though significant changes would be made), dorm capacity would be reduced, cleaning schedules amped up, and the utmost care would be taken to keep our kids safe. We were a little nervous but excited that our daughter would have her Freshman year on campus. Yes, it would be a little different and weird, but the chance to meet new people and bond with other people her age was an experience we didn't want her to miss. We paid the tuition, and our daughter started thinking about how she wanted to decorate her dorm room. Which posters should she choose? Could she have a succulent? 

Planet Money

On July 31, NPR's Planet Money (a podcast I listen to regularly) published a story called College Fails, where they talked about what college life would actually be like come the Fall and the precarious financial situation many colleges find themselves in. About half-way through listening, I had a growing sense of dread as Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said the following: 

Being on campus will be something like living in a monastery or a minimum-security prison. And the reason it'll be like a minimum-security prison is because students will be constantly monitored and tracked. So... colleges are telling students... yes, school will be in person, at least a little. And they're going to keep that line long enough for students to mail in a check, hoping that the students don't pick another school or defer or drop out.”

 I told my wife, but didn't tell my daughter, in the hope at at her college things would be different. And on August 5, we came full circle, learning that her college of choice would be 100% virtual in the Fall.

Things don't look good

Higher education is now in a double bind. They can't drop tuition because so much of the costs are fixed, yet students and parents are rightly skeptical regarding the relative value of a virtual education. One of the most transparent schools I found was USC, which provides fascinating insight into the category of their $5B per year budget:

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Using this as a proxy, I'm personally not sure what schools can cut that will provide any significant expense relief. If anything, the investment in virtual education delivery infrastructure will increase costs in the near term. As a technologist and proponent of the Cloud, I think there are huge opportunities to avoid massive upfront capital costs and to accelerate what otherwise could take years to put into place. 

If you have concerns (like I did) about the financial viability of a school your child is attending, I'd encourage you to look at the following things:

  1. How big is the endowment?
  2. Is the college carrying debt (often for campus/facility overhaul)?
  3. What's their annual budget and revenue? 

I think many schools will not survive. 

Insight from CIOs

Earlier this year, I interviewed several CIOs of educational institutions in the Los Angeles area. Fortunately, in the cases of both of the interviews I am citing, California State funding is an important financial backstop. These interviews were all pre-COVID, but the insight into education and the Cloud is more resonant than ever. In my interview with Carmen Lidz, the CIO of Los Angeles Community College District, we talked about the requirements and challenges of online, real-time education:

“...we’ve looked at a cloud offering for real-time streaming for captioning on videos, which is a fantastic offering from an ADA perspective because we want to make sure our students who are hearing impaired have the opportunity to see what the instructor is describing in the classroom in real-time. However, if you have very slow streaming or the information is lagging, it’s not going to be the best experience for the student. That reliability is important.

In my conversation with Chris Manriquez, Vice President for Information Technology/CIO for California State University, Dominguez Hills he said this:

 “As an educational institution, we need to be as flexibly forward as we can. ...our mission is about developing human beings—and human beings are creative. So we have to be flexible, and how we go about doing that is one of the challenges.

Now more than ever our educational system is being challenged to be more flexible than people ever thought possible.

The future of school

Not just colleges but many, if not most, elementary, middle, and high schools are now virtual. My son (who is 13) conducts all of his school remotely. Ignoring the potential social impact of virtualization for the purposes of this article, what might the future hold for schools? What should we be thinking about?

  • Can we make school more efficient? Offloading logistics like taking attendance, etc.
  • Can we improve education by using AI to monitor emotional engagement (yes, this is something AI can actually do...) within the classroom and providing insight to teachers and educators?
  • Can we personalize education? Creating specific breakout rooms or video curriculum or study groups based on who's struggling and who's moving ahead?
  • Can we improve security for this vulnerable population? We are currently using systems that are not designed to be used in the way that they are. Could school-specific systems provide better accountability?

No one knows how long this will last, but I am willing to bet that school will never be the same again.

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