John Austin, University of Michigan - Pandemic Crushes University Towns

John Austin, University of Michigan
Pandemic Crushes University Towns

Generally speaking, education is a blend of socialization and information.

The younger you are, the more crucial the socialization side of the equation. The longer you are in school, the more your learning curves towards information.

Which is why, in simplest terms, education online makes more sense for students in college or graduate school than for kids in pre or elementary school. The classroom experience, the interaction with university teachers and students and their ideas are valuable, but for centuries scholars and researchers have learned to make do without it.

On the other hand, for younger children, the classroom experience – learning to sit, learning to listen, to wait, to share, to learn, cannot be replicated or replaced by education online.

Getting younger students back to learning in classrooms also has powerful non-educational imperatives: the need for people to get back to work and the need for many of them to have competent care for their children.

It makes perfect sense to focus on schools reopening in the lower grades if health issues can be successfully managed.

Children younger than 15, when many are making the transition from junior high (or middle-school) to high school, are not only in the greatest need of “real” school, as often, and in as close an approximation as each school district can provide. It is their parents who most need supplementary supervision for their kids.

On the other hand, the Trump administration’s campaign to force colleges and universities to go to “in person” classroom education makes no sense – either educationally or economically. College and graduate students are more than capable of Zooming into their lectures and seminars from home and getting, if not full value, enough to be acceptable to them. And their parents have long since surrendered supervision of their 18 to 20-somethings.

Students who feel out-of-classroom university education isn’t worth the price don’t need the president to tell them they don’t even deserve the option. And we can be sure that “consumer protection” or “academic quality” are hardly concerns of the former proprietor of Trump University. Its quality was nil and its consumers were played for chumps. Even “never settle” Trump paid tens of millions to make that memory go away.

The “tell” here, the indicator of what’s really under the Devil’s tail is the expansion of the order to open academic classrooms to the threat, “or we’ll deport all your online foreign students!”

Here is the purest expression of two of President Trump’s mega-phobias: The Donald is afraid of others and he’s terrified of knowledge.

The threat against foreign students allows Trump to hurt foreigners – people from other countries, often from other religions or with other than white skin. And, institutionally, it deals a painful blow to the knowledge industry; to the colleges and universities and research centers that produce the kinds of people who think they are smarter and better informed than the president.

Because they are.

The targets here are among the smartest candidates in the world to better themselves and the whole American intellectual and scientific environment just by being here. And a lot of them pay top dollar for the privilege. What’s not to like?

Just brains and talent, apparently, because they come from others.

This wholly gratuitous, wholly non-sensical blow, coming on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, is like the disease itself, honing in on vulnerability. Schools and colleges and universities, like almost every other institution in America and the world, are facing an uncertain and suddenly reduced future. Driving away such a lucrative source of campus income as foreign students is as stupid and dangerous as refusing to wear a mask in public.



John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center, and as a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Brookings, created and directed the Brookings Great Lakes Economic Initiative.

He just completed 16 years elected service on the Michigan State Board of Education, serving the past 6 years as President. Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center a place for ideas and network-building to advance Michigan’s economic transformation. He also Lectures on the Economy at the University of Michigan. In 2015 Austin brought State leaders together to form the Michigan Higher Education Attainment Roundtable (HEART) to forge a new broadly-supported roadmap to increase the states higher education attainment rate, see With MEC Austin also coined the term “Blue Economy” to describe the way our waters, and water innovation contribute to economic growth, and is leading a “Michigan Blue Economy” Initiative, to support stakeholders and the Michigan Governor’s Office to develop and implement a State Water Strategy.



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