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Colleges and students in the US are engaged in a game of chicken as the fall semester approaches with no end in sight for the coronavirus crisis. The outcome could radically change the way Americans think about and value a higher education.

On one side, institutions want students to sign up and pay tuition deposits, which are coming due. Most are pretending they can open like normal, with in-person classes. Some are keeping people largely in the dark about what the semester will look like.

On the other, students and their families are wondering whether it’s worth shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for an experience that might be largely online. Many are delaying decisions, thinking it might be wiser to take a semester or a year off.

"In the longer term, more people might reconsider the value of a four-year degree, complete with the exorbitant on-campus experience. College might never be the same.

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Who will swerve? I’m thinking that colleges are going to have to make the bigger adjustment, which means students could emerge as the winners.

For decades, US colleges have existed in a highly unusual market, in which both cost and benefit are difficult to discern. As admissions officers will patiently explain, very few students actually pay full tuition, thanks to various kinds of financial aid — so there’s no clear price competition. On the value side, colleges are selling a nebulous package of (dubious) knowledge, status, social connections, economic opportunity and proliferating perks such as state-of-the-art swimming pools, gyms, dorms and cafeterias with sushi bars.

Nodes of contagion and sources of legal liability

Now, the pandemic is stripping much of that away. Dorms, gyms and dining halls have become nodes of contagion, and potential sources of legal liability. One of colleges’ greatest assets — faculty — will remain largely behind a Zoom screen, given that so many are in the most vulnerable age group, particularly at elite institutions such as Harvard. (There’s no way my mum, who has been a computer science professor at UMass Boston for 50 years, will be teaching in person until there’s a good treatment or a vaccine.) Forming social bonds with one’s classmates will be difficult if they’re staying at home or six feet distant.

Some institutions have come clean about what they have to offer: Cambridge and the California State University system, for example, have admitted that they won’t be meeting normally for a year. Others, such as Notre Dame, are trying to make it work with scheduling changes and a combination of testing, contact tracing and quarantine. No matter what they do, though, college is no longer the warm and fuzzy proposition it used to be.

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This leaves students and parents facing a much starker decision than usual. Whatever they were paying, the product has changed. Unless colleges make the deal a lot more attractive, many people will withhold their money. If they do pay up based on administrators’ overly optimistic promises, the outcome could be a huge legal mess as a bunch of angry parents try to get their money back.

I’m guessing that in the short term, colleges will have to cut prices to sell a mostly online education. Some students will try to wait it out, hoping things will get back to normal. Others will get used to learning, making connections and getting jobs online. Which means that in the longer term, more people might reconsider the value of a four-year degree, complete with the exorbitant on-campus experience. College might never be the same.

— Bloomberg

Cathy O’Neil is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a mathematician who has worked as a professor, hedge-fund analyst and data scientist.