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Will colleges cut education or leaders’ pay?

Many colleges, especially private ones that aren’t among the nation’s richest, have been in trouble in recent years, and now the COVID-19 pandemic is rocking their worlds.

Many schools partially refunded dormitory fees when they sent students home. A few have been sued because they didn’t partially refund tuition as well. The suits are based on the premise that online instruction is worth less than in-person teaching on campus.

That premise isn’t wrong. We have heard from a lot of professors and students about this, and while we can’t say how much online classes are worth compared to in-person ones — 60%, 70%, 80%? — it’s not the same.

Granted, there are some caveats: Online education is often more effective at the college level than for lower grades — elementary probably being the most difficult — because the students are more independent, mature and capable. The right instructor in the right type of college class can come pretty close to in-person quality. And yes, some students blossom in a remote setting.

But many students, professors and subjects lose even more than usual online — forestry, for instance, or nursing, or science classes that require lab work.

Bottom line: No one we know thinks colleges are going to be able to charge as much for online classes, long-term.

Add that to the fiscal hell many colleges are looking at. Many schools expect to reduce the number of students in dormitories, diminishing one of their sources of revenue. Also many incoming freshmen are considering taking gap years or semesters instead of missing out on many of the in-person experiences and classes they had looked forward to.

And with the economy in rough shape, more students will be looking to get more education value for their money. We suspect more people will be scrutinizing how colleges spend students’ tuition money.

As colleges cut spending — as they must — how they do that will separate the sheep from the goats. Every time they cut professors or programs, they are taking away reasons why students should go there. They reduce their own value. Instead, they could cut from luxuries they have accumulated in recent years, such as pay, staff and facilities for administration, as well as for sports.

It will be instructive to see how the lawsuits play out. One could make a strong argument against the students seeking tuition refunds if the college is truly short on funds, but what if the school has plenty of money and is just withholding it from the students who pay its bills?

Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute in Troy is one of the colleges being sued. Its president, Shirley Ann Jackson, gets paid some $5 million a year, according to the Times Union of Albany. She and other administrators agreed to a 5% pay cut, but that’s not very much in her case. Sure, that $250,000 could pay several professors’ salaries, but why not leave that amount for her and give the other 95% back to pay the school’s bills? Can’t she, with the millions she must have saved over the years, live for one lean year on $250,000 in order to save her school?

Instead, RPI opted not to renew the contracts of 200 employees, including nearly 60 full-time, non-tenured faculty members, according to the TU. That decision will give students less education for their money.

Also, the newspaper reports, RPI received $4.8 million in federal aid — at least half of which is required to go directly to students. Is it a worthy candidate for federal bailout?

We are sure RPI is an excellent school, but we are also sure the reason it is excellent lies in its academic faculty and programs, not in the fact that it pays its president so much.

The same can be said for other college employees who make massive sums — such as sports coaches. Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney makes $10 million a year, and University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban makes $8.8 million a year. Unlike a college president, they and their supporters can claim that their championship records bring more than their salary amounts back to their schools, in TV, clothing licensing and ticket sales. Also, if those schools don’t pay them that amount, some other school might.

But that doesn’t mean they need that much money. They could help their state colleges in this time of need by giving back most of their pay, easing the inevitable burden on taxpayers and students. If they do, they would be praised as good people as well as good coaches.

What they decide will say a lot about their character. And do people of poor character make good coaches?

We don’t know exactly how the college landscape will change as a result of this pandemic, but it seems logical that the changes will be dramatic. We hope the changes will have some justice — that they will lead to colleges using students’ money more for students benefit and not charging higher tuition than they need to meet those needs. But justice won’t happen if students, parents, lawmakers and employers just let things play out without paying attention.

We don’t see SUNY schools, such as North Country Community College, or small private colleges without much money, such as Paul Smith’s, as being part of the problem. We think schools like them that prioritize teaching so highly will be more desirable in the future as students assess value. If they make it through the first wave of the COVID-19 shakeup — and we certainly hope they do — they deserve to come out stronger on the other end.

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