End of the Higher Education Buffet

If there’s one thing my kids miss most during quarantine, it’s buffets. In stark contrast to highly regimented meals of the past two months, buffets have no rules. Zev would enjoy combining sushi and pizza. Hal has been known to sneak dessert first. Leo’s plate was often piled so high it looked like he’d taken one of everything. The lack of dining rules suffused the entire outing and it required effort to keep them from running wild through the restaurant.

While high-end buffets do a nice job of hiding the disorder – cleaning up spilled shrimp cocktail sauce – the lack of rules is most evident at more affordable venues. Zev has celebrated several birthday dinners at the Legoland California Hotel buffet, but my only memory is of an obese bearded man passed out on the floor next to the soft serve machine, shirt riding high on his belly – a buffet omen if there ever was one.

In addition to hosting many actual Legoland-quality buffets (including at least one in a revolving restaurant), colleges and universities market themselves as buffets for the mind. For many of us, scrolling through a college’s courses and programs of study can be even more exhilarating than strolling into a buffet on an empty stomach. Universities are also buffets in that students consume cognitive skills, non-cognitive skills, and maybe even technical skills in a single (albeit lengthy) sitting. Finally, while many buffets have installed chocolate fountains with no clear nutritional purpose, universities have lazy rivers.

So what happens to the college buffet now that COVID crisis has turned to coping? In the absence of a resurgence of the virus or scary new research about aerosol transmission, nearly all campuses will reopen this fall with a significant portion of learning conducted online in order to maintain social distancing via reduced classroom density. The stated reason for inviting students back to campus will be along the lines of what Mitch Daniels conveyed two weeks ago: “Purdue University… [is] sober about the certain problems that the COVID-19 virus represents, but determined not to surrender helplessly to those difficulties but to tackle and manage them aggressively and creatively.” Copycat messages have already begun (see e.g., Radford University: “We will overcome this unprecedented challenge together as one Radford family”). The unstated reason will be financial: no college or university wants to find out what happens to enrollment following an announcement of continued remote learning. This is why the first institution to signal further online instruction – Cal State Fullerton – quickly walked it back.

Nevertheless, on the heels of a lost spring when students learned that remote learning is like a buffet where you can’t smell or taste the food, many won’t be buying in this fall. International students are already out the door – kicked out of dorms and mostly back home. In a global public health and economic crisis, relatively few are likely to return to study in a country where the only thing worse than the President’s historic bungling of the COVID crisis is pencil neck henchman Stephen Miller’s un-American message that we no longer welcome foreign talent. Domestic students also appear willing to press pause, many signaling they’ll be staying close to home regardless of how enthusiastically their (former) college of choice echoes Mitch Daniels. An ACE survey predicted up to 17% of currently enrolled students won’t continue. Another poll found that 12% of entering students who have already paid deposits no longer plan on attending, while a much higher proportion of students than normal haven’t paid deposits. A survey of surveys estimated a potential overall shortfall of as much as 20%.

While we await the first survey of survey of surveys, we know one thing for certain: the impact of a national enrollment shortfall anywhere in this vicinity will be unevenly distributed. Our most selective colleges and universities are top buffets like the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesar’s Palace: a combination of incredible choice and quality that will continue to attract long lines. For these schools, which continue to strictly limit the number of seats for no good reason, COVID-19 won’t mark the end of the buffet; we’ll still be wondering where the buffet line ends.

The story will be very different for non-selective institutions that predominantly enroll students from outside their metropolitan areas, or that operate outside major metropolitan areas. At these schools, far too many current and prospective students will stay home and enrollment declines may be devastating. On top of this, expect a decline in state funding of higher education of as much as 20%. So revenue at some public institutions could fall 30%. The question these colleges and universities will face is one a friend who teaches at a liberal arts institution recently posed: “If someone burned down 1/3 of your house, would you rebuild exactly as it was? Would you put up plywood sheets to separate the charred part? Or would you completely redesign your house?”


In 1937, Texas oil tycoon Sid Richardson decided to toughen up his nephew, recent Yale grad Perry Bass, by hiring him to manage the construction of his new estate on St. Joe’s, a barrier island in the Gulf. Richardson told Bass he had a $35k construction budget. Once Bass reached the island, Richardson called Bass and took it back, saying he needed the money for a lease in West Texas. “Any son-of-a-bitch can build a house for $35k,” said Richardson. “It takes a genius to build it with nothing.”

COVID-19 is a Sid Richardson test for hundreds of non-selective colleges and universities. As finances turn upside-down, presidents, provosts, and deans will find themselves in an unfamiliar and highly uncomfortable position. Bass passed Richardson’s test by rethinking construction, making his own building material out of a mixture of sand, oyster shells, and cement (which he bought on credit). To pass their test, college and university leaders must do nothing less than redesign higher education.

As Pennsylvania State System Chancellor Dan Greenstein correctly notes, redesigning higher education means more than closing campuses. Greenstein is considering moving less popular programs and courses online so a single campus in the system can achieve scale in delivery. Similarly, Southern New Hampshire University – one of the few non-selective institutions with nothing to worry about by dint of its online scale – proactively announced freshman year coursework would be completed online, reset freshman tuition at $10k, and awarded full scholarships to all entering students. According to President Paul LeBlanc, “we're trying to unbundle these two jobs we get asked to do. New students will have the clubs, organizations, all of that which we associate with residential campuses. But their academic program will look quite different, and there will be aspects of the residential experience that will likely look different as well.” SNHU promptly set a record for most deposits in a single day.

Assuming few at-risk schools take similar action this fall, watch for at least one state to make a SNHU-like move, “helping” public institutions manage an unprecedented budget reduction by migrating all lower division instruction online and sourcing programs from providers like Coursera. Multiple data points suggest general education at non-selective colleges and universities may be a casualty of COVID-19. Beyond gen ed, in the coming months expect to hear a lot more about zero-based budgeting, upside-down degrees that start with industry-recognized certifications (or at least marketable certificates), and new linear faster + cheaper pathways to good jobs. The wild disconnect between a higher education buffet with rules and a labor market with too many surprising and unfair rules cannot continue indefinitely.

Most of these changes will have the effect of limiting student choice and therefore will be anathema to prior generations who benefited from choice and discovery. The trope of discovery is powerful in higher education. Who’d want to be against discovery? (Who’s against bigger buffets?) But COVID-19 will force colleges and universities to distinguish between choosing a pathway and choosing elements of that pathway. The former is critical. But at too many institutions, the latter directly contributes to crises of completion, affordability, and employability.

The biggest challenge to rethinking higher education is that faculty and administrators are captive to their educational backgrounds and nostalgia. But just because that model still works at our most selective universities – or worked 20, 30, or 40 years ago where you went to school – as Michael Sorrell, savior of Paul Quinn College argues, we “can no longer sit around and be held hostage to traditional wisdom or tradition. We have to stop being more in love with our traditions than we are with our students.” Passing the Sid Richardson test and redesigning higher education will require taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to overcome the numerous internal obstacles to necessary change.


All buffets are NOT created equal. As demonstrated by Yelp reviews, there’s a wide gap between the paroxysms of pleasure for the Bacchanal Buffet and the nearby Las Vegas Golden Corral where a complete lack of rules seems to frustrate the dining experience:
“The cook is cooking me a steak holding his phone. Next he’s putting food in a container holding a towel in the food. Just completely nasty.”
“Our server was on her phone texting. We needed refills and our plates needed to be picked up they kept piling she just kept walking passed them then she disappeared. We ended up finding her outside with management smoking marijuana.”
“If you feel like pulling up to a feeding trough this is the place for you.”

Golden Corral’s “traditions” are clearly not worth maintaining (who wants to eat in a corral anyway?). Although non-selective colleges and universities are certainly prettier and nicer places to work than Golden Corral (and contribute more to the store of human knowledge than the above comments), from the standpoint of student outcomes, hundreds of schools with low completion rates and indebted, underemployed graduates are in the same category; if Yelp permitted education reviews, they would be just as depressing.

One higher education tradition worth upholding is harnessing social turbulence or transformation to advance the mission. During the Great Depression, many colleges took advantage of record low construction costs to build iconic campuses. Passage of the GI Bill resulted in a 2.5x increase in the number of college graduates over the course of the 1940s. The Civil Rights era led to much needed diversity and social justice on campus. The COVID question for trustees, presidents, provosts, and deans at non-selective institutions is how to harness financial disruption to jettison traditions and rethink how to achieve better student outcomes. The coming fiscal crunch is a crisis that cannot go to waste. Because if there’s one thing that will never be the same after quarantine, it’s buffets.