Harvard University recently announced it has asked students not to return to campus after spring break and that all classes will take place online starting Mar. 23. Colleges across the country are taking similar actions amid fears of the spread of coronavirus in the United States.

The onset of COVID-19 in the United States has caused Americans to review everyday habits. “When was the last time I washed my hands? Have I been touching my face? Do I have a good amount of emergency food in my home?”

Now colleges have been forced by the virus to ask some questions of themselves, such as how much of their services can be provided online and how the academic quality of those courses can be preserved.

Students will have to learn to work independently in ways they don’t have to now. Professors will have to upend some lesson plans and transfer all materials to an online platform.

For most, this process already has begun. They will not have to reinvent the wheel but rather simply create a discussion board on “Blackboard” or use Skype for in-person discussions.  

Colleges and universities have long communicated with students over email, displayed grades and assignments online, and administered tests and even video chats with professors. Professors who prefer the more traditional classroom experience will have to adjust, but the advancements now available to them will make this as seamless as possible.

But this raises other questions, such as: If colleges and universities can relatively easily transfer their education services to distance learning, why is the traditional in-person college experience still far more common than taking classes online? Distance learning has gained popularity, but still only about 30% of college students are enrolled in an online class.

Distance learning allows students to access the best educators in the country regardless of where they live and allows professors to reach far more students far more efficiently.

At a time when roughly 40% of recent college graduates are in jobs that don’t require a college degree, this more efficient delivery of skills-based education would seem useful toward streamlining the pathway between education and work.

Unfortunately, the traditional college experience appears to have failed in many ways to effectively educate students for the needs of our workforce.

There are advantages to the typical in-classroom college experience. Some students thrive on the interaction and exchange of ideas. Others find sitting in class tedious and would thrive in the flexible environment online education provides.

It is apparent that campus-based education still holds a near-monopoly on the delivery of higher education, at a time when online education is so readily available, because taxpayer money pouring into institutions of higher education from the federal government maintains the status quo and fuels the facilities arms race.

Federal subsidies and attendant regulations stifle innovation. The way colleges are accredited, for example, requires schools to get accredited through a federally sanctioned accrediting body—what many have referred to as regional monopolies—in order for their students to access federal student aid.

This federal gatekeeping function limits the ability for schools to pursue new, innovative pathways to content delivery.

Compounding the problem is the easy access to federal student loans, which pours billions of dollars per year into universities, often using them for fancy dorms and athletic facilities rather than investments in academic quality.

As Richard Vedder, an expert on college spending, has written, “Lush new dormitories, recreation facilities, student activity centers, libraries, and lecture halls now dot the collegiate landscape, embodying the idea that students must be appeased with upper-middle class comforts if universities are to vie for their tuition dollars.”

Students would be better served by a higher education system concerned with the most efficient means of educating the future workforce, rather than creating a fun space for students.

The changes to daily life in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States could lead to some long-term restructuring of higher education once the immediate threat recedes. That could include a look at the comforts of campus life and an increase in focus on academics.