The “Vassar Bubble” has always been a common turn of phrase, but the term has never been more literal than in Fall 2020. While historically it just described Vassar’s echo chamber of privilege and left-leaning politics, the “Vassar Bubble” is now an actual physical delineation with a corresponding psychological distance from the rest of the world.
In the confines of Vassar’s campus, with only 29 recorded cases and frequent testing, it’s easy to dissociate from the reality of the COVID-19 crisis. The softening regulations and slightly more relaxed attitude as we enter Phase 2 of the return to campus make the fact that the United States death count just passed 200,000 even more jarring and surreal. In fact, as Vassar’s case count has more or less stabilized, the country just had the highest case increase in a day since August 14. It’s hard to feel good about Vassar’s relatively contained COVID situation when spatial privilege and wealth is such a deciding factor in how the virus spreads. The relative success of Vassar’s return plan calls into question who gets to forget about the extreme consequences of this public health crisis and who gets to be sequestered within institutions that can afford to respond adequately.
Not all small liberal arts colleges have the resources to provide students safety, however. Small colleges that were already struggling financially are going into debt, and many are facing potential closure because of decreases in enrollment. Robert Zemsky, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania, predicts that 20% of American private liberal arts colleges are at risk of closure. This not only affects small liberal arts colleges themselves, but also directly hurts the economies and cultures of the small towns they inhabit. On the other side of this phenomenon, larger universities are also struggling with reopening, with many blaming students for not following guidelines. Even wealthier universities like Princeton and Harvard face a reckoning as they shy away from dipping into their ample endowments and implement all-remote learning without lowering tuition. Big or small, prestigious or obscure, it seems that the overall reality of reopening schools is one of chaos and uncertainty. Even at Vassar, which has had a relatively successful return, it’s hard to ignore the sense of confusion and unpredictability.
Some, like Professor Scott Galloway of New York University, have described the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on colleges and universities as a long-overdue economic disruption of higher education––but I can’t help but wonder who will be left behind in this turmoil. Galloway, a marketing professor, argues that prestigious higher education institutions have been acting like luxury brands, charging ridiculous rates in exchange for name recognition and prestige, and the act is falling through in these tenuous circumstances. This all rings true, but how would this disruption really work? While enrollment has decreased across the board, small, less wealthy colleges seem to be the most at-risk institutions right now, while those with more name recognition have been able to charge the same––or more––for hybrid or all-remote classes. The question is how long students attending expensive higher ed institutions will accept this disparity, especially considering the staggering student debt crisis in the United States.
While Vassar students may feel distanced from the reality of the crisis, one would be remiss to assume that this imminent disruption will leave any campus unscathed. Remote classes, high tuition rates and the looming presence of the virus has called all forms of privilege into question. In any case, the instability felt by many students and faculty is not just owing to a difference in surface-level campus regulations or class formations, but to the precarious standing of the unsustainable yet deeply entrenched higher education system.