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Cal State Chancellor Says Virtual Classes Can Still Lead To 'Lifetime Of Opportunity'


It is May. We are still closing in on the traditional end of the academic year for most schools. But educators around the country from pre-school through college are trying to figure out what the next academic year will look like. California State University, the country's largest four-year college system, said this week that it plans to cancel in-person classes. Instruction, for the most part, will be offered online. This decision, of course, is because of concerns about spreading the coronavirus. Timothy White is the chancellor of the Cal State system, and he joins me now. Welcome.

TIMOTHY WHITE: Thank you. Happy to be with you, Ailsa.

CHANG: Well, we're very happy that you are joining us today. As we mentioned, a lot of schools are still considering how to approach next academic year. Why did you feel as though you needed to make the decision now?

WHITE: It's a combination of factors. I mean, of course, first and foremost is the health and well-being of our students and our faculty and staff and the communities where our 23 campuses are located across this 800-mile swath of the state of California. And those are the most important factors. The classes are not canceled. The university does remain open, but we're going to shift as much as we can into the virtual environment. And we're also going to be spending the next several months with our faculty and staff on professional development and training and the introduction of even more sophisticated ways in which to do virtual learning.

CHANG: Well, what does professional development look like when your teaching staff how to teach classes virtually?

WHITE: Our faculty are brilliant. You know, they know the chemistry, the biochemistry, the history, women's studies. I mean, they are content experts. And some have been conversant with the use of technology to enhance their teaching already. But there are so many faculty who have not had to use technology to enhance their learning. And so for those individuals, they need to be introduced to and exposed to ways to use technology to create that vibrant, engaged experience for students.

CHANG: Well, in addition to how your campus life is going to be changing, I want to talk about how the school system's finances are changing. You're projecting upwards of $300 million in losses for the spring term alone because of this pandemic. Are you concerned that ending most in-person classes in the fall could further threaten the financial picture for Cal State?

WHITE: Well, the data so far indicate that enrollments are actually stable or up on every one of our campuses. So the overall sense that many people raise that enrollments will go down is not supported by fact in the California State University.

CHANG: So tuition will remain the same even though the classes are going to be mostly online?

WHITE: Tuition and mandatory fees will remain the same because the faculty and the staff are employed to deliver that. And in fact, actually the cost of education is going up with the purchasing of much more technology and the training that we'll be doing over the summer. And remember, the tuition only pays a portion of the overall cost to the university. The other piece, of course, coming from the state appropriation. So you're right. There is a confluence of the disease issues coupled with an austere budget circumstance that is going to be testing us this next year. But we are leaning in because we want to be successful for our students.

CHANG: Well, putting aside the wisdom and the urgency of this decision to move classes online, what do you say to someone who was looking forward to the college experience, to interacting with fellow students, to being inside actual lecture halls full of classmates, to - for those who wanted to stay on campus to living a dormitory life? What do you say about the essential college experience being ripped away?

WHITE: I acknowledge and respect that and I concur that it will be a different experience in the fall. But it won't be a bad experience, and it is much more important if you think about the long-term picture as a student and as a family. Our tuition is not the ones you read about in the news all the time. We're $5,500 in tuition per year. Yes, that's an investment. But over - well over half of our students don't pay any of the tuition because we have really robust financial aid. Leaning in and taking your courses and making progress to degree gets you to that degree sooner rather than later and then creates a lifetime of opportunity you otherwise would not have economically and socially, career wise. So while acknowledging that some of that excitement will not be there when we're doing things virtually, this is a shorter term problem for a much longer term gain.

CHANG: Timothy White is the chancellor of Cal State University, the nation's largest four-year college system, which will be holding most classes online for the fall term. Thank you very much for speaking with us today, chancellor.

WHITE: It was my pleasure to be with you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen Pao is an editor, producer and reporter on NPR's Digital News team. In her current role, she is lead digital editor and producer for All Things Considered. Her primary responsibility is coordinating, producing and editing high-impact online components for complex, multipart show projects and host field reporting.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.