March 5, 2024

Podcast: COVID and the Ethics of School Reopening

Author: Dr. Bjorn Mercer
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Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

and Dr. Wally Boston
President Emeritus, American Public University System

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected educational institutions at all levels, ranging from elementary schools to higher education. Instructors, parents and students have all had to make adjustments in order to handle the demands of off-campus education. Similarly, school districts, universities and colleges have had to make choices about whether to try reopening or to continue educating students online.

What are the primary factors driving the decision about how to reopen schools in the fall? In this podcast, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to Dr. Wally Boston, President Emeritus at American Public University System, about the health risks to students, faculty and staff as well as the economic impact on institutions of higher learning. Learn why so many colleges and universities are at great risk of closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read the Transcript

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Welcome to the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University System. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today at the Everyday Scholar, we are talking to Dr. Wally Boston, President Emeritus at American Public University System. And today we’re talking about COVID-19 and school reopenings in the Fall of 2020. Welcome, Wally.

Dr. Wally Boston: Welcome. I’m glad to be here, Bjorn. Thanks for the invitation.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Of course. With so much going on with COVID-19, the pandemic that of course has hit the world for months and months now, school reopenings is [a] huge topic, and school reopenings touches so many different facets of both the society and the economy and is politically driven. So then, I’m going to jump into the first question, is how has COVID-19 disrupting higher education?

Dr. Wally Boston: Wow, it’s a great question. And I’ve published more than a few blog articles on it. So I guess I’ll start with last spring, in May. Timothy White — who I happen to know, he’s chancellor of the Cal State University System — announced that beginning this fall, all of the Cal State universities, I think approximately 28, would be online and with a few notable exceptions for a couple of lab courses here or there. But at the time Cal State, under his leadership — they were the first to make such an announcement that they didn’t believe that we’d be in a situation to allow them to return to campus safely.

I think he was roundly criticized. But then a couple of weeks later, a few schools up in Massachusetts indicated that they were going to be mostly online with a few people on campus. And then we saw a lot of announcements from institutions: “Well, we’re going to make our decision later this summer. We’ll make it around July 1st, July 5th.”

And I think there was a tracker in the Chronicle of Higher Education that was tracking the announcements. And prior to the first of July, the majority of schools were planning on coming back, returning to campus.

After the first of July, trying to think of the exact break point, I think it was closer to the end of the month, the Chronicle published an article saying that it appears right now we’re at 50/50. 50% of the institutions have said they’re coming back, or have not said anything at all, just leaving people to speculate that they were coming back, and 50% have announced they’re going to be mostly online for the fall.

It’s interesting because as the incidents flared back up — in primarily southern states so far — like California as a western state would be included in the group of where the flareups occurred — Florida, Texas Georgia, etc. I said, “This is crazy. These states with the flareups are not even in session from a college perspective. So when we get back to campus, this could be a disaster.”

Then there was an article published in the online journal of the American Medical Association by a Yale Ph.D. in public health faculty member there and two Harvard Medical School M.D.s, where they put together a simulation for a prototype 5,000 student campus where 5,000 students attend classes on campus; all of them are pre-screened.

However, of the 5,000, 4,990 are clean, negative with no incidents, and 10 were asymptomatic and the test results did not pick up the fact that they actually had COVID. And so they ran scenarios on how frequently you would have to test the entire student population during an 80-day short semester.

Because a lot of schools said, “Hey, we’re going to start early and we’re going to end at Thanksgiving because we’re not going to bring back our students after Thanksgiving if they’ve gone all over the country and exposed everybody to the COVID virus.” So they said, well, assume an 80-day semester, that most schools are trying to shorten this.

And the results were crazy. It basically said that you needed to test the entire population every two days in order to maintain a safe situation. And it also assumed that there was no external influence, as in people visiting the campus that could interfere and expose people to the viruses.

You and I were college students at one time — you more recently than me — but I can still remember my days of living on campus and social events that happened on weekends. You had a difficult major and couldn’t get out during the week.

And college students are going to be college students. I read that study and I said, “Oh, this to me is the evidence here that indicates that most schools will be online this fall.” And I felt like it would tip.

Interestingly though, there are a number of schools that have not tipped and some large schools. And I view that as either an economic reason, because they earn a lot of room and board fees, or they are a university that is in three of the Power Five conferences that have not yet abandoned their opportunity to play football this fall.

So, as of yesterday, the Big 10 and the Pac-12 have announced that they’re not playing football, but the Big 12, the ACC and the SEC have said, “We think we’re going to play football. Our medical advisors have told us it’s safe to play football.” So I actually believe that they probably could play football safely if they had an experiment like the NBA is doing where you get in a bubble. And all, I believe most of the Power Five conferences had already announced that they were only going to play league members and they were going to stop playing non-conference opponents.

But I really think you can’t take these football players who are college students and expose them to other students and then allow them unguarded to leave their dorm room or their off-campus apartment for a social event and not expect that there’s going to be infections.

I have twin daughters who are currently in college. They’re both athletes, and they were telling me all summer long that because athletes were allowed to return to campus June 1, per the NCAA rules for practice and training. And they were back on campus with their fellow athletes and were telling me about the number of people who were testing positive.

Fortunately, neither of my daughters. They’ve been pretty good about keeping to themselves and keeping a very narrow group of friends who they see. But I think given the nature of colleges and given that study on the simulation from the folks at Harvard and Yale, I think this fall is going to be mostly online again.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that simulation is fascinating because it really highlights the fluid nature, I think, of humans, number one, and college students. College students, really, if you go to a campus, the idea is to interact with people, to talk to new people, to be exposed to different ideas. And that just highlights that fact.

Now, I’m going to jump to the next question, which that simulation also demonstrates it. What are the health risks of COVID to students and to teachers and staff?

So from the CDC most recent as of today, which is mid-August, cases by age groups, so in the typical college range, 18 to 29, it doesn’t break it down to 18-, to say, typical 23-year-olds or so. About 21.7% of all COVID cases are in that age range.

So what are the risks for students going back? But more importantly, what are the risks for the teachers and staff whom, for the ages of 50 to 64, again, that’s the second-riskiest category of getting COVID?

And then if you jump up to the death rate by age group, the 18- to 29-year-old is 0.5%. So very negligible, but then for the 50- to 64-year olds are 15.6%, which is exponentially more than the students. And so you’re significantly putting your teachers, your staff, your administrators at risk.

If, say, the average age of the college teacher and college staff member is around 49, that’s almost at that age group that is at risk. And then if you jump up to the older, say, professors who are 65 to 74, the death rates for that age group jump up to 21%.

And to me, those are, of course, frightful stats. Because again, for younger people, the stats are very small, but they just get so high as you get older.

Dr. Wally Boston: I admire the colleges and universities that stated early on that if a faculty member or instructor had any concerns about teaching in person that they would not have to. And that was pretty noble of those institutions.

And I can tell you that both of my daughters have substantially, all of their classes will be online this fall because of their institutions allowing faculty members to do that, even though they’re on campus, I think, starting this week for both of them officially, because they happen to attend big-time football schools. But they’re going to be online because of either selecting a couple of online classes previously, because they’re athletes and that accommodates their travel schedule, and the fact that their face-to-face classes, which they enjoy, the instructors opted to say, “You know what? I’m teaching online this fall.”

So one daughter, all of her classes are online. The other daughter has online for half of her classes, and then the other ones are where they cut the class size. And half the class goes one day of the week and the rest of the class is online, and the other half goes another day of the week and the rest of the class is online. But this is a situation at two schools that say, “We’re back in business and we’re playing football.”

I think that when you really look at older faculty and staff members, it’s a huge concern. I know that where I spend my time, I split my time between Maryland and Texas; I don’t go out without a mask in either location.

If I go to a restaurant, I try to sit outside so I don’t have to deal with the HVAC. I follow the rules and wear my mask until the moment that I’m seated. And in some cases, while I’m waiting, I keep my mask on. I wait until I get my food and drink before I take the mask off, because I’m looking around and maybe it doesn’t quite look like it’s six feet for the one table to the other table.

I just can’t imagine being in a situation where you’re forced to teach a face-to-face class, and you have a lot of young people and you hear stories about this fraternity had a party that this thing happened. And you don’t know of anybody in that group that may have attended that event over the weekend.

And you also don’t know, I mean, in fact, I would say it’s probably pretty safe to think that many of the colleges that are announcing returning to a[n] in-person class this fall have not done anything with the HVAC. For the most part, campuses have old buildings, which means they have old HVAC. From what I understand with some of the techniques on installing these much more pure filters and UV systems to destroy the virus, that you can really only do that with newer systems and not the older systems.

So I’m a part-time faculty member with our institution. And I would tell you that if I had to teach face-to-face, given the fact that I’m 66 years old, I’d probably say, “You know what, not going to do it. I’ll take the online option this fall,” which the good news is we’ve been doing online for 25 years now. So that’s okay.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And I get it, even if I was, and I haven’t taught in-person in a while, at say the local colleges in Arizona, I would hesitate to go and teach a course. I’d just say, “I’ll just do online and sit it out.”

And even the local community colleges here in Arizona have opted for all online for the fall, but ASU — Arizona State University — is still bringing some people back. And so that transitions to the next question, is what are some additional ethical issues associated with higher education and COVID?

There’s obviously the health issues, but how about the almost laser-focused idea of we need football? I would go into, I had a whole series of articles, years ago, where I completely wrote against having semi-pro football in college. Most colleges should take the University of Chicago model, have a D-3 football team.

The focus is education. You don’t need big-time football at my alma mater, University of Arizona, which is one of the more, I’d always say, the least successful Pac-12 teams out there. Yet they still spend millions of dollars on football, and there’s ways you could split off the teams.

You can have it actually semi-pro versus it actually being education. But when there’s such a focus on what I would say external educational activities, how ethical is it to really focus and push for that?

Dr. Wally Boston: Great question. And I think it crosses the line between what do you consider an ethical violation when the truth is quite evident. All you have to do is Google football revenues for Power Five conference universities and you can find an… Excuse me, an article that was written about a year ago, maybe not quite a year ago, but an article that was written when someone was contemplating the financial impact, and there’s about $4.1 billion in revenues between TV and attendance at the stadium and all of the food and beverage and tee shirts and stuff like that.

And they said if you are canceled for some reason, that you could probably cancel about a $4.1 billion revenue impact, you could probably recover about $735 million in expenses, but that the bottom line impact to 60 or so colleges that form the Power Five would be about $3.4 billion. That’s a lot of money, but I guess where I’m going is the data is out there for every school.

There’s a list — I could be wrong on this — but I believe Texas A&M had the highest revenue for sports, and you might imagine other schools that are out there like Alabama and Clemson and Michigan and Ohio State. They’re probably all up in the top 10 because of their football prowess.

So all anyone has to do is to understand what the impact is of canceling the football season is, is just do that Google. And you’ll get that information even if you have to search around for it for your individual school.

So the fact that so many of these schools with the big-time football programs are saying, “We’re waiting,” and they don’t mention it. Is that an ethical lapse? Well, I’m guessing that their president says everybody knows what impact this would be.

My feeling about ethics, which I think the important thing is to communicate. That’s actually your area of expertise, communication. In this particular situation, I think it would have been best for college presidents from these schools just to be totally honest and say, “Look, the conference…” Generally, by the way, most of the voting members of the conferences are the presidents.

So when the Big 10 decided to pull out, it was because of a vote of the Big 10 presidents saying, “We’re shutting down for the season.” So the presidents are very aware of that revenue impact.

To me, a president who happens to be a voting member says, “Look, I’ve talked to the other presidents, because we’re all board members of the…” — I’ll use the ACC as an example — “We’re all board members and we’re going to make this decision. And we’re getting advice from our medical advisors that indicate that our football teams can play and not suffer any crazy coronavirus impact.”

And to some extent, I think that part is all true. And I think the NBA is proving it. There are very few bubble cases of players coming down with —I mean, there are cases — but they’ve been able to contain it because of what they’re doing down with Disney.

But given the nature of college campuses, I mean, I think Tim White at Cal State, when he canceled, all the Cal State schools basically weren’t playing in their league. Now most part, most of them are not big- time athletic powerhouses, but I think there are a couple of members, Cal States, that participate in some of the bigger conferences.

So he made a decision that impacted revenues, although some people say it wasn’t that big of an impact, so he was able to make it. But nonetheless, he certainly was more than transparent.

And I think transparency, from an ethical perspective, if you’re transparent, if I was… I’ll use my undergrad alma mater, if I was Duke’s president, I’d say, “Look, we’re not known for football as much as we’re known for basketball, but we’re an ACC school, so we have football revenues that come in here. And so we’re going to be a good member of the ACC and vote to do what’s best for the ACC, as long as our advisors tell us it’s safe.”

But it’ll be interesting. I think the three big conferences who still say they’re going to play football, if they don’t find a way to isolate their players socially, I give it four weeks, max.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And that totally makes sense. And what you said about the NBA bubble is a really fascinating experiment, and it’s working. Of course, these players are professional and they’re adults, 22-plus, generally.

And it’s hard to see how that would work for college football, because these are student athletes, where their number one obligation should be to their studies. Unless you go to a football school, in which they’re really there to do football, get a little education and then try to make it to the NFL. Or like you said at Duke, go for basketball and then jump up to the NBA.

And so it’s really hard to imagine the sheer cost on institutions would be too much to create a football bubble for college, it seems. And what you said about communication is absolutely perfect. I mean, the number one thing whenever there is something going on, and which I think has been very difficult in [the] contemporary U.S. political environment, is good communication.

I’ll say good communication is one of the hardest things humans do. So no matter what, it’s extremely difficult. And then you get a somewhat fractured political environment and it’s that much harder. Excellent, excellent comments.

Dr. Wally Boston: I do have one thing that I’d like to add. So there’s another little ethical dilemma. I mean, I think get into ethics from a learning perspective, and maybe even a research perspective, there’s these conundrums that you have and you go, “Well, is this legit or not legit?” So in fairness to the athletic conferences, the Power Five, all of them announced pretty early on that if an athlete felt unsafe because of COVID that they could announce that, not play, the school would not take away that scholarship. So I applaud them for that.

At the same time, having daughters who were athletes, they made the remark that their friends who were football players, no one wanted to be the first one to make that decision. You didn’t want to be criticized in practice after you made that decision you weren’t going to do it. “Oh, look at so-and-so. What a sissy,” or… That’s a word from my generation, I don’t know what they use, today’s generation, for these words.

But those football athletes aren’t electing — with a few exceptions — to make that decision. I guess it’s a conundrum. So yes, the league offered a great opportunity. If you don’t want to play, you don’t feel safe, you don’t have to, and you keep your scholarship. And at the same time, call it peer pressure, call it whatever, they’re not electing to do that.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that totally makes sense. Especially at a younger age, say 18 to 20 something, there’d be a lot of social pressure, especially for males. Whatever social constructs you want to put on for gender. There is a lot of pressure for males to actively demonstrate their masculinity or however you might want to describe it. Especially in the most masculine, putting that in quotes, “of sports,” football.

Dr. Wally Boston: Right, the interesting part, though, is when you look at the $4.1 billion in revenues that relates to big-time football, and the fact that there’s only a roughly $750 million of costs, that excess covers almost all the other sports. Except basketball, although it covers basketball, a lot of schools the way the basketball contract works, it’s not… I mean, the NCAA controls that, versus the Power Five which control football. Which is why the NCAA canceled their championships for division two and division three and said, “We’re just going to leave division one up to the Power Five.”

But because those monies come in and cover all these non-revenue sports, I’d actually not be in favor of that, because I think having teams in college is great. And you have this conundrum though, that the big-money sports really drive a lot of decisions that you make.

And I think probably a lot of presidents just have to say it’s the evil they have to live with. If they’re getting money from two big sources, football and basketball, that there’s 650 other athletes in sports that you probably wouldn’t have a lot of those teams if you didn’t have the excess coming in.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’ll jump into the last question, and some analysts have predicted that anywhere from 10% to 20% of all higher education institutions might fail by fall of 2021. How did we get here? How did higher education get to a point to where a good number of institutions might fail?

Dr. Wally Boston: Well, the basis for this precedes coronavirus, COVID-19. In January, my dissertation chair from the University of Pennsylvania, Bob Zemsky, Robert Zemsky, and two colleagues published a book called the College Stress Test. And the impetus for that book was they had proposed to Johns Hopkins Press, a group that they periodically write books for, to write a book about law schools.

Law schools have seen huge declines in enrollment over the past five or six years, primarily because the price to attend law school got to the point where the average law school graduate came out of law school with $125,000 in debt. And more than half of them couldn’t get jobs as attorneys.

We had expanded our law school enrollments nationwide, and also expanded the tuition to the point that everybody thought that, “Wow, there’s more than enough employment to go around at six-figure salaries for lawyers.” And that just didn’t happen. The top 10 law schools would graduate attorneys who could get jobs with the big firms that would pay that kind of money, but no one else.

They wanted to write the book about law schools and the director of the press said, “Why don’t you write it about all colleges?” And so they said, “Okay,” and using data from IPEDS and their own understanding. And Professor Zemsky is someone who writes about the financial models of colleges and universities all the time. He’s been doing it for years.

So they developed the College Stress Test. And as they were nearing publication, the news hit back in November of 2019 that a new firm, a higher ed consulting firm, was getting ready to publish a list of schools that were in imminent danger of going under, based upon their assessment of publicly available metrics.

And they were doing this as a project in concert with “Inside Higher Ed.” “Inside Higher Ed” was going to have a series of articles on it.

And basically they and “Inside Higher Ed” were threatened to be sued by several of the schools that were going to be on that list. They said, “You can’t do this. You put our name on a list of schools that are going to go under and you’re going to sink us. We’re dependent on tuition, and people are going to say, ‘Well, I’m not going there. They’re going to go under.’”

So Professor Zemsky, Bob Zemsky, and his colleagues opted to, in their book, use some examples where they’ve gotten permission from the institutions, but publish the algorithm for how you could access the data to calculate for your own institution what your at-risk factor was. Now, interestingly enough, post-COVID and just two or three weeks ago — maybe not even three, maybe just in the last two weeks — the Hechinger Report took the time to utilize the Zemsky algorithm that they published in the College Stress Test.

And now we have a dataset for 2,600 public and private nonprofit institutions that you can look up. You can go to that dataset and actually type in any name. And you can see what the risk factors are. Are they at risk for any of the four major factors that Zemsky looks at?

But essentially, why we are here precedes COVID. And why we were here is because for the last 30 years, colleges just kept increasing tuition at a rate that was higher than the increase in the CPI. My senior year at Duke, I was room, board, tuition, everything, and it was under $4,000 for that year.

Now, granted that was in the late ‘70s, but I still have the registration book that lists all the fees and everything. And now it’s that same number for similar thing at Duke is in the seventies. As in $75,000, $76,000.

And the cause of it, I think, there was a period of time when we were expanding the children of the Baby Boomers and we had ratings and everybody wanted their children to go to the top schools. And so top schools were able to increase their tuition.

And then the ones that weren’t top schools aspired to be top schools. So they were putting in the climbing walls and the amazing dormitories and everything else to attract people, but also they were jacking up the tuition for that experience. So if you take the tuition rates that colleges had in the ‘70s, tuition, room and board, and compare, we should be at about half or maybe even less of where we are today.

The colleges really built a business model that for many of them was tuition-dependent. But when they got to a point where the tuition was really too high, then in some cases they started discounting their tuition. So you hear about tuition discounting.

And a few years ago, the red flags were out there by people who follow higher ed. And they said the average tuition discount rate, I can remember this very vividly, probably 15 years ago, the average tuition discount rate was 42% or 43%. They said, “We’re approaching 50%. Once we get past 50%, it’s not good.” Well, we’re past 50%. Some colleges have close to a 70% discount rate.

That means you are so sensitive to enrollment fluctuations that if you don’t hit your enrollment target and you have a fixed-price model, which traditional colleges do, they’re operating a campus, they’ve got faculty members on salary. They’re very different from a financial model than a totally online university like APUS is.

So when they canceled classes in the spring, many of these colleges that were tuition-sensitive said, “We’d like to refund you the money, but we can’t.” Now, most colleges did do a refund, thinking that they could get part of that back with applying for government relief. And I know there was some money that did go back to colleges for that purpose.

At the same time, many of the ones that said “we’re going to be back, we’re going to be safe, we’re going to be new,” that they couldn’t have a fall like the spring. And Bob Zemsky was interviewed, after COVID came out, he was interviewed by the “Chronicle.”

I think this was in April. And they said, “Have you changed? Because in your original estimate for the College Stress Test, you said 10% of all colleges are imminently in trouble.” He said, “Yes.” He says, “If colleges open up online in the fall and not on campus,” he said, “I think the number goes from 10% to as high as 30%.”

And subsequent to that, there have been other predictions. If you look, there’s a professor, Scott Galloway at NYU’s Business School, came out with his own ranking, very creative, but I don’t think it takes into account certain things like public institution funding. And he has a pretty big list of who’s impacted and why.

And then the Hechinger thing, which published Zemsky, but you can even go back to Clayton Christianson who came out with a book, “Disrupting Class,” wow, 15 years ago or so. He predicted by 2020, half of all universities would be gone. Now that ignores the fact that there are ways that troubled institutions can kind of linger and, and slowly dive versus immediately dive.

I think Professor Zemsky’s estimate that they don’t open up for the fall, a much bigger number of institutions are in trouble. I think that’s going to happen. Everybody that I know that follows this, myself included, believe that this fall we’ll see announcements for a substantial number of closings.

Let’s say there’’s normally five or six schools that close in a year. I’ve seen one projection that the number of closures that are going to get announced are going to be at least 10 times that. So instead of five, 50.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It makes sense, especially with COVID complicating everything, with so many small businesses going under. I mean, even just where I live, there’s so many different small businesses that in the last few months have closed up for good. And it would make sense that higher education, which is so enrollment-sensitive, would also be very susceptible to that.

Now, do you see that a lot of the smaller — what I would describe as regional — schools are more at risk? Because a lot of the larger institutions are only getting larger, kind of taking away some of the enrollments of these smaller private colleges, which hundred years old, are wonderful, and they’ve grown up and they fulfill the need of their community.

But then almost every small college, now, say if it’s in Iowa or Arizona or West Virginia, is essentially competing for the same national pool of students, plus a little bit of their local, and also competing with all the big schools and competing with online schools. And also just the fact that higher education in general has, has changed, greatly changed, in a hundred years.

Dr. Wally Boston: I think that the idea of going to a college campus with, let’s say, 1,200 students living on campus for all four years and receiving this intimate one-on-one, or not one-on-one, but small class instruction that taught you the liberal arts and how to learn critical thinking and how to become a better citizen. And that would get you a job and it wouldn’t break the bank on your family’s savings and pocketbook disappeared a while ago.

Going back to the escalating tuitions of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s. And the fact that we had this peak in the 18-year-olds graduating from college. And that’s actually been four years now, since we’ve come down from the peak, and the fact that technology has eliminated a lot of middle-class jobs has caused people to be pretty skeptical on the value of paying a premium for a college that doesn’t have a brand name and doesn’t have a reputation for getting people jobs on Wall Street or whatever their goal may be.

That has disappeared. And I would say that it’s time that if an institution hasn’t found a niche for it to claim to attract students, and those students feel confident that when they leave, they either get into the top grad schools or they get hired by Big Four accounting firms, or Big Tthree, whatever they’re down to now, I think those institutions are in serious trouble, and probably deservedly so. Shame on the administration and shame on the board that someone didn’t try to say, “How do we get back into this game? And how do we do it and think of the students, think of the mission, think of the students?”

So there are going to be closures, and the closures aren’t going to be the small privates either. States, I mean, when you look at the economic impact of COVID, very few states have even reconciled, brought the legislature back to reconcile with the fact that their incomes, everybody who was laid off, isn’t going to be paying the same level of income tax they had to pay last year. If they weren’t getting paid wages, they’re not going to be paying the same income tax as last year.

States that depend on tourism, the restaurants being shut down, the sales tax from restaurants, the sales tax from retail establishments that shut down. Look at all the bankruptcies of the stores in the malls. Bottom line is that the state’s budgets are going to be impacted.

States are obligated to fund K through 12 education and Medicaid. Beyond that, the higher ed budget, their contribution to higher ed? It’s not mandated. If it’s not mandated, it’s subject to cuts. If it’s subject to cuts, you have to raise questions that have been raised in the past, but generally ignored, which is why do you need multiple research institutions in a state?

I grew up in Maryland; we have a lot of universities in Maryland. But a number of the universities going back to the early 1900s were normal schools. Normal schools were where they prepared people to teach. And then they went from a normal school to a college.

And then sure enough, in the whole progress of prestige and all that, most of those normal schools that went to colleges or went to teaching colleges are now universities. I think that when Maryland has to adjust its budget, it’ll be interesting to see what happens to those. And Maryland is not the only state. Ohio is the state that they’re speculating on, could have the most impact to its state institutions under the COVID impact because of taxes. And I think there are greater disparities between their flagship, Ohio State, which is a huge research university, one of the biggest in the country, and then some of the smaller places. So we’ll see how that all shakes out.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So, in the very near future, I could see Arizona State having the largest school of music for Arizona, and University of Arizona and NAU going to marching band schools. Which to me makes sense because otherwise you’re just going to quote “waste money on fields that don’t have a lot of opportunity.” And that’s not saying that you can’t go into certain fields and it’s good for personal development, but you need to have your niche, if that makes sense.

Dr. Wally Boston: I thought when the Obama administration came out with their gainful employment rules, which they targeted specifically for-profits, and I told the Deputy at the Department of Education this, I said, “This would be a great rule if it applied to everyone.” And a couple of examples that I used where students who go to four-year institutions incur $50,000, $75,000 in debt, and they decided they wanted to be an art major.

Well, they made that decision and they know that life as a struggling artist is a struggle. And you may have to do other jobs to pay the way, particularly because you may never hit it big as an artist, but it’s a passion. And same applies to music, same applies for culinary degrees. My gosh, you could teach yourself to cook, and many people do teach themselves to cook and never go to school.

And perhaps, through the school of hard knocks, get jobs working in the back of restaurants and eventually work your way up. Or you can go to a culinary school and incur $75,000 in debt and maybe never get paid more than $20,000 a year.

And so I said, “The premise of this is fine, but it should apply to all colleges.” He goes, “Well, we can’t do that with all colleges, politically.” And I just said, “Well, that’s a shame.” Because I agree with you, that it could be in a few years where, as you look at these budgets, one institution ends up with the music and the other ones do band or whatever, and that’s what they’re limited to. And I think there are more examples than just music. There really are.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Dr. Wally Boston, thank you for being here at the Everyday Scholar. Any final thoughts about COVID and school reopenings in fall of 2020?

Dr. Wally Boston: My prediction is that most people are going to be online. The campus experiment’s going to fail in most places.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree. And so today we are talking to Dr. Wally Boston, President Emeritus at American Public University System, here at the Everyday Scholar.

About the Speakers

Bjorn MercerDr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

Wally BostonDr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who remained APUS president until his retirement in August 2020.

Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni. In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore.

In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. Dr. Boston lives in Texas with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.

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