Like millions of her peers, Philadelphia’s Jessica Gooding once had good reason to be super-excited about returning to the University of Pennsylvania campus in the fall to begin her senior year. Having made the leap from Northeast Philly’s Abraham Lincoln High School to the Ivy League, Gooding has a regular column in the Daily Pennsylvanian that she hopes will serve as a springboard to a writing career. But now in a time of coronavirus she’s happy to keep filing from her current digs in Manayunk and to socially distance from her Penn classmates.

“Philadelphia is a city that already has a lot of health care issues — it has a lot of poverty and it has a lot of problems even before we had COVID,” Gooding told me by phone this week, after she published a column urging her peers not to return to campus in the fall. “For us to have a spike because we have so many students coming here – it just doesn’t make sense.” It’s also personal for Gooding, who’s seen two relatives — an 94-year uncle in North Carolina and an older cousin in Georgia “who still had plenty of dreams he wanted to fulfill” — die from the coronavirus.

But in late June, Penn said its current plan for the fall is for students to return to campus on September 1 with a hybrid mix of smaller in-person classes and others to be held online, with aggressive social distancing and a housing plan of one student to a bedroom. In announcing the blueprint, the university’s president Amy Gutmann hailed the complicated scheme as innovative way for “carrying out our uplifting historic mission.”

But with each passing day, the task for America’s colleges and universities is looking more like a Mission Impossible. On Wednesday, Penn and its seven athletic rivals in the Ivy League acknowledged the ongoing problems in containing the coronavirus among young people by cancelling all fall 2020 sports, the first major conference to do so. Even with school out for summer, college communities — at the University of Washington and the University of California main campus at Berkeley — are seeing outbreaks linked to fraternities that offer an early warning that, when young minds are involved, the best-laid plans of university administrators can be laid to waste.

You might get a “C” in your freshman creative-writing class for stating that American higher ed is caught between a rock and a hard place, yet that’s pretty much where they’re at with a new semester six weeks away. The first wave of the coronavirus that caused every major campus to close in March and take instruction online not only hasn’t subsided but hit a record number of new cases this week, with young people the biggest drivers of the spike. And yet most schools are — for now — following models like Penn’s that would bring many, though not all, students back on campus.

And then there’s the curious case at the top of the elite higher-ed food chain: Harvard University. On Monday, the Cambridge, Mass., Ivy League icon unveiled its plan that would only allow 40% of students back to campus and, as a result, necessitates that all academic instruction take place online — while continuing to charge its full tuition, a whopping $49,653 a year. The students who do come to campus will live under conditions that some have likened more to a prison — solo living, student contact discouraged, food from shrink-wrapped packaging and frequent COVID-19 tests.

We are seeing the best minds of a new generation shoved into a machine designed by Rube Goldberg. Why? There’s a simple answer and a hard one. Simply, it’s about the almighty dollar. More complexly, it’s another sign that the American way of college — like so many other institutions wandering the burned-out minefields of late-stage capitalism in these United States — is badly broken, its flaws now exposed to the world by an invisible virus.

In the immediate term, a number of smaller colleges and universities live so close to the margins of each semester’s deposits for their ever-rising tuition but also room and board that some will surely close unless they can offer a pre-coronavirus type of campus experience this fall. That is especially true — and also beyond ironic at the moment when America is also undergoing a reckoning on race — for America’s historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.

In the Philadelphia suburbs, both Cheyney University — which only recently survived a near-death experience — and Lincoln University have announced plans to return to campus next month for mostly in-person classroom experience, even as new data shows that African-Americans are dying from the coronavirus at rates double those of white Americans. With hardly any endowment and consistently falling state aid, HBCUs like Cheyney and Lincoln simply can’t survive without tuition.

“Most colleges are living close to the edge,” Robert Kelchen, the Seton Hall University professor who’s an expert on the economics of higher education, told me — including large public universities and smaller non-profit ones. “Not every college has a billion dollar endowment.”

One school that does, Princeton University, (actually its endowment is $25.9 billion, if you’re doing the math) said Monday it’s also going online like Harvard but offering a discount ... of 10%. The not-so-subtle message that Harvard and Princeton — with such steep tuition for an experience that has some commonalities with the University of Phoenix — are sending is that their real value isn’t so much education as the job-market credential of an elite diploma.

That’s one problem, and yet I also am struck by how the dilemma for American higher ed so resembles the other roadblocks that the nation faces in getting beyond the coronavirus — almost all of which stem from our unique forms of vulture capitalism that have shredded any kind of U.S. social safety net. Our sister nations in the European Union have largely tamed COVID-19 because their social-welfare framework allowed workers to stay afloat at home instead of racing to re-open too early. Now college presidents are facing similar brutal decisions, because higher education has been essentially privatized.

The decisions around whether campuses should reopen should only be driven by one factor: What’s the best for public health. But money — including the understandable desire to avoid mass layoffs, let alone closures — has corrupted these decisions. The coronavirus would still be a problem, but it would be much less of a problem if we saw higher education as a universal public good, in the same way that we currently aim to perceive K-12 learning.

Is that naively idealistic? American universities were viewed largely as a public obligation as recently as the 1970s (i.e., when people like me who are old but not that old were in college) when public institutions were 75% government funded. Working-class kids chased the American dream by attending the University of California or City College of New York tuition free.

That’s completely flipped: By 2015, state universities were just 23% taxpayer funded and 25% financed by the tuition paid by students and their maxed-out families. The reasons are complicated. The elite private schools saw the inherent value of their diploma’s credential in an increasingly unequal “knowledge economy,” and jacked up rates accordingly — launching a kind of arms race that’s manifested in luxury dorms and posh gyms.

This Jan. 28, 1986 file picture shows U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office of the White House after a televised address to the nation about the space shuttle Challenger explosion.
Dennis Cook / AP
This Jan. 28, 1986 file picture shows U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office of the White House after a televised address to the nation about the space shuttle Challenger explosion.

But equally important — and less understood — to rising tuition is the conservative backlash to student protest that took root in the 1960s and ’70s, when then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan began the push to end his state’s free tuition and said taxpayers “should not be subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” Reagan’s acolytes got the message that universities were to turn out cogs in the capitalist machine, not deep thinkers; the huge Gipper fan and ex-governor Scott Walker won deep funding cuts to the University of Wisconsin and sought (unsuccessfully) a change in its mission statement “by removing words that commanded the university to ‘search for truth’ and ‘improve the human condition’ and replacing them with ‘meet the state’s workforce needs.‘”

This is the henhouse — which spawned an unsustainable system of massive college debt and scammy for-profit universities, among other pathologies — where the chickens have now come home to roost during the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic arrived amid a growing progressive chorus of calls for radical change that could include a return to free public-university tuition or even a wiping clean of the $1.6 trillion student debt — but even those changes aren’t radical enough.

A crisis like the coronavirus is also, for better or worse, an opportunity. The mess that’s unfolding on campuses from West Philly to Seattle is our opportunity to both see how the American way of college has veered so far off course — and to start a conversation on how to completely re-think what this nation owes our young adults, and not just in the privileged suburbs but also the ones now trapped in rusting neighborhoods. I intend for this column to be a part of that conversation. America’s universities are failing their COVID-19 test, and it’s time for a healing to begin.