Monday, April 12, 2021

Fall 2021: The Obligation to Disclose

Many universities remain silent about their Fall 2021 plans. For instance, my own employer, Georgetown University, has apparently communicated almost nothing to students. 

Universities should instead communicate as much as possible about what they expect their plans to be, including the probabilities that various alternatives might occur. The reasons for this are fairly simple:

1. Students choosing to enroll or to continue at a particular university are making a high-stakes decision.

2. Their choice is dependent upon the expected value of that education and the social and educational environment. They depend heavily upon the representations made by universities. This is not a buyer-beware market. 

3. The quality of life and kind of education they expect to receive is clearly material to their decision to enroll or continue at one place rather than another. Many students would turn down admissions offers and select a different school if they knew, for instance, that social distancing will be maintained in Fall 2021, or that courses will be online, etc. Universities should not be trying to retain or acquire students on the basis of misrepresenting such facts. Students should know what they are buying. 

4. Further, education is sold with reasonable prior expectations. When I order a pizza, I expect it not to have a cauliflower crust unless it explicitly states that. Similarly, when a student signs up for schooling, they have certain reasonable expectations about what university life will be like. Just as the pizza joint needs to tell you they only have cauliflower crust, so a university should disclose if it expects to violate the typical norms. Thus, simply keeping silent about, say, hybrid or online classes amounts to misrepresentation. "The students assumed we would have in-person courses, but we never said that," is not a justification. 

Of course, many universities refuse to be candid because it is in their self-interest not to be. They recognize that admitted students would not enroll or that current students would transfer if they knew what Fall 2021 is likely to be like. So, to protect their own revenue and rankings, they refuse to disclose this information, and even refuse to disclose just how unsure they are. My own employer, Georgetown, tends to wait to announce anything like this until after the deposits are in, the matriculation letters of intent are signed, and students are stuck. If you walk around our campus, you'll see many highfalutin' banners about values and principles, but these are just for show and marketing purposes.