Op-Ed: UI should set itself apart; keep students in class

My OpEd ran in today’s Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Enjoy!

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The University of Idaho’s enrollment has been steadily declining since 2010The Daily News reported in 2017 that 17% of UI’s enrollment were actually high schoolers. The University was in fact cushioning their numbers with high schoolers to mask the steady decline of enrollment numbers.

Further exacerbating UI’s enrollment woes, the pool of available college students will start decreasing 3% per year starting in 2025 due to the decade-long decline of birth rates. Experts had predicted this “college enrollment cliff” would forever alter higher education as we know it. But coronavirus did it first.

Inside Higher Education recently predicted a 20% nation-wide college enrollment decline this Fall due to the coronavirus, so I made a public records request concerning UI’s current registration numbers. For Fall 2020, Moscow registration is currently 7,121, and there’s no guarantee that registered students will follow through and enroll, especially with the threat of another campus-wide shutdown in the Fall.

Financially, why would anyone choose to pay for the cost of an in-person education only to find themselves stuck at home taking online classes, particularly when there are better, cheaper schools that specialize in online education? I have recommended to students that want to attend the Moscow campus when it finally reopens to take online classes elsewhere and transfer those credits back to UI. For example, first-ranked Ohio State University charges $359 per credit hour for online out-of-state students. UI charges $415 in-state and $1299 out-of-state. And don’t get me started on all the additional hidden fees UI piles on.

UI was already hemorrhaging money. Even before the pandemic struck, its base budget was reduced by $22 million. The Idaho State Board of Education approved a $14 million reduction from the current fiscal year’s operating budget for FY2021 (not including the latest 5% state funding holdback) as well as freezing the tuition rate. UI lost an additional $7 million between March and June from housing, dining, parking, and summer programs due to the shutdown.

This has a significant impact on our local economy. UI was recently highlighted in a Wall Street Journal article discussing the economic ramifications on college towns when local universities are forced online. Some takeaways from that study:

  • UI adds $356.8 million in income to the Moscow economy. That’s 28.0% of the total gross regional product of Moscow.
  • 22% of Moscow’s employment is tied to the UI.
  • UI students who relocate to Moscow spend $26.6 million per year in our local economy.
  • Out-of-region visitors provide an additional $14.1 million.

Knowingly destroying our local economy in the name of Covid would harm more young adult lives than the Coronavirus is capable of. For an academic town, Moscow’s ignorance about the virus’s deadliness towards healthy, young students is astounding. According to the CDC among 15-24 year-olds, the coronavirus has killed a total of 157 in the US. For that age group, the percentage of deaths due to coronavirus is 0.1%, about that from the seasonal flu. Compare that to the death rate by auto accidents for that age group which is 77 times higher.

UI was once the flagship university in Idaho, but the Idaho State Board of Education rescinded that title back in 2012. Despite this, UI has continued spending as if it still reigns supreme, making many enemies in Boise. Idaho legislators are not going to continue subsidizing financial incompetence and failure at UI, regardless of the coronavirus. In fact, they will likely use this crisis to further justify cutting UI’s budget.

Rather than sending students home in the Fall, UI needs to isolate the infected, quarantine the exposed and vulnerable, promote good hygiene, and continue with classes as normal. If a professor is in a vulnerable category, teaching assistants can provide classroom management and the professor can Zoom into the classroom and teach remotely. There’s no need to send home the entire student population, putting the final nail into UI’s coffin.

Moscow and UI should acknowledge that college students are statistically unlikely to die from the coronavirus, and should take this opportunity to set themselves apart as a rational institution, unwilling to destroy their institution or the local economy by living in fear and expecting taxpayers to prop them up.