“He was reluctant to open it, for once such a thing is opened, it cannot be shut again” – Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton


It has been over two months since we’ve gone into self-isolation. While the daily tally of detected cases and deaths continues to climb, we’re cautiously peeking to see if the viral storm has receded. Others are shoving their way through the door to resume life as it was before the “shelter in place” order. As we venture out, we’re most likely to experience weltschmerz when we realize the price we have paid and will continue to pay as we pick through the ruins. We’ll need to prepare for subsequent waves of the coronavirus, future economic turmoil and an extensive effort to repair the damage done to every aspect of our lives. When historians write the history of this period, they will describe the 2020s as a decade of reconstruction, transformation, and new beginnings. In short, a turning point. 


As we venture into an uncertain future, we are wondering “when this pandemic will end?” Maybe 2021 as Covid-19 burns out. Will we ever feel safe? The scars from collective anxiety will remain well beyond the medical ending. What is the future of our great cities, especially those at the epicenter of the virus? Their recovery is a long way off! How will we adapt to the new world of work, with the blurring of work and home life? Suddenly, Americans are doing their jobs, schooling their children, and spending family time in the same space. How will we make up for lost school time with 45 million U.S. children quarantined at home? For many, the 2019-2020 school year may be a lost year. How will our education institutions adapt to provide a positive and safe learning environment? Today’s virtual education isn’t working! Who will lead us through the steep path ahead? We have an important choice with the upcoming presidential election. Throughout history, the endings of global public health crises [plagues] has always been very messy.


By early May, we have seen the economic impact, with 27.3 million individuals filing for unemployment benefits. The heaviest losses occurred in the travel, retail, hospitality sectors, but significant losses were seen in healthcare, education, and professional services. The labor market experienced the sharpest decline since the 1930s, with the U-6 unemployment rate hitting 22.8%. The GDP in the 2nd quarter may decline by 40% versus the same period last year. One thing we’ve learned is that, no job is safe. Many companies and workers are relying on Federal and state aid, with some of these programs running out in June. We need to rev up the nation’s economic engine! 


In the last 60-days, most sectors saw immediate job losses, including higher education, a $600 billion industry. The coronavirus is pushing colleges to the breaking point. In a recent survey, 26% of college students are undecided whether they will return to their colleges and universities in the fall, 16% of high school senior are considering a gap year, and over 1 million “full-pay” international students may not be able to attend college in the U.S. due to travel restrictions. China, India, and South Korea account for the highest number of international students. Colleges and universities are faced with the loss of tuition, room and board revenues, as well as reduced federal and state funding, and further saddled with new expenses to institute changes to keep students, facility and staff safe. This financial stress is setting the stage for the consolidation and rationalization of the sector. In the next 12 to 18 months, 20% of colleges and universities could fail. This catastrophe will happen sooner if on-campus classes are canceled for the fall semester and instruction offered almost exclusively online. Many colleges and universities are on a knife’s edge as parents and students begin to ask the question – “what is the value of a 4-year residential college experience?”


While the coronavirus is robbing the higher education sector of its vitality, I’ve been wondering about second-order effects of the likely decision not to offer on-campus classes this fall, specifically the 2020 presidential election. Students have become a voting bloc with real power as a result of colleges’ and universities’ efforts to boost civic engagement. In the 2018 mid-term election, the Average Institutional Voting Rate (AIVR) among campuses reached 39.1%, double the rate in 2014. “If college students … sit out [or are not be present] in November, it could have a serious effect on the election”, especially in the swing states. The traditional on-campus registration and “get out the vote” efforts will not happen. They may still vote, but their on-campus voice will not be heard and diluted by influences in their home precincts. 


After the 2016 presidential election, an analysis of voting patterns within a 1-mile radius of college campuses showed a decided preference for Hillary Clinton at flagship institutions. This pattern held in the swing states, including Florida 3.5:1 margin in favor of the Democratic candidate, Michigan 4.1:1, North Carolina 3.9:1, Pennsylvania 2.2:1, and Wisconsin 5.2:1. If you remove college students from the equation, make some simple assumptions, and conduct a back of envelope analysis, Trump’s margin of victory in 2016 would have been higher, and N.H. flipped into the red column. While there are plenty of electoral forecasts, including a recent and very interesting “multilevel regression and poststratification” (MRP) analysis, narrow margins of victory in the swing states will pave the path to victory. Will history repeat itself? Once again, will less than .25% of the total votes cast in the U.S. decide the upcoming election? The peculiarities of the Electoral College require that attention is paid to the 380,000 particular segments the candidates are targeting. While I’m not suggesting, it is desirable or likely, an unexpected side effect of a decision to keep the campuses closed in the fall may be a narrow Trump reelection victory.


Beyond the upcoming presidential election, we will face many known, unknown, known unknown, and unknown unknown issues. 


When we sheltered in place in March, it was viewed as a brief interlude to “flatten the curve,” and then life would return to normal. Sixty days later, we are debating whether the shape of the recovery will be Z, V, U, swoosh, W or L. The future of everything has changed! We have borrowed trillions of dollar to mitigate the financial damage; the presidential campaign has gone silent, educators are struggling to minimize the “coronavirus induced learning melt”, especially for primary school students, over 100,000 U.S. businesses have shut down permanently, we’re beginning to see a cascading series of bankruptcies, work will not return for swaths of peoplemortgagerentauto loan, and credit card payments for millions are past due, food banks are overrun, the commercial property market is on the verge of collapse, airlines are hunting for space to park over 16,000 planes … The list is long! 


While it is easy to paint a dark and uncertain future, there are bright spots. The Internet kept running despite the unprecedented increase in Wi-Fi calling and high-demand video traffic driven by the likes of Facetime, Skype, WebEx, Zoom, etc. It has been our lifeline. The supply chain realigned to meet our needs. We’re beginning to see the benefits of a global experiment when the entire world stopped. Mother Earth got a rest. The transition to telemedicine has accelerated. We learned valuable lessons for the management of future public health emergencies. Hopefully, we’ve replenished our national stockpile. Most importantly, we recognize we have a shared obligation, purpose, and opportunity to build a better “new normal.”


Perhaps, the best way to end is to remember the hope offered by Winston Churchill in 1942, when the allies were just beginning to see initial success. “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” There is light at the end of the tunnel!


Joe Smialowski

May 22, 2020

Follow at Twitter @joe_smialowski

Turning Point

One thought on “Turning Point

  • May 25, 2020 at 7:50 am

    You make many compelling points, but the loss of international students will be a huge blow to many colleges that depend on those revenues. This coupled with the demographic declines in college age kids will push a number of schools over the edge.
    I also agree with your point about how the internet has managed to keep us all connected in what must be a huge surge in demand. As much as people are complaining about being Zoomed, it seems to work remarkably well in the rural area I am ensconced in and will only get better.

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