Read: Jay Halfond on “The Rise of the Transactional University”

Think of your mental picture of the typical American university. Chances are it is expansive, scenic, immaculately landscaped – with ivy-covered buildings, large sports complexes, food courts, and attractive student residences. Major universities possess medical schools and engineering schools with vast laboratory resources. Tenured, scholarly faculty teach the students, who have a boundless array of organizations and activities to round out their lives on campus.

These students come from across America and beyond – hoping to find love and lifelong friendships, spend a semester abroad in Florence, and stay up late in their residence halls discussing the meaning of life. Hollywood has caricatured this stereotype through films that revel in raucous frat parties and climactic football games.

The vast majority of America’s students, of course, do not go to colleges and universities that even remotely reflect this stereotype. Theirs is more likely to be a community college or four-year public institution near where they grew up. They pay far less than the premium prices of the major universities, since they do not subsidize sports teams, underutilized buildings, and faculty research. Their school is closer to home and to where they work.

This Transactional University emerged in the mid-1960s to accommodate the Baby Boom generation and the exploding rate of college going. At one point, new community colleges were created at a rate of one per week. Former teacher’s colleges expanded to comprehensive, four-year regional colleges.

Their students now forge a different, more practical relationship with their school – valuing convenient, efficient paths to degrees – and less focused on any distractions that might interfere with their pragmatic objectives. Rather than a holistic, sentimental tie to an institution, these students pursue a means to an end. The degree matters more than the experience.

Students attend the Transactional University a la carte. They think more in terms of credits than semesters, as they progress towards degrees at whatever pace makes sense for their lives and income. They build their schedules while having to earn money along the way – and embrace online courses as a means of managing their time. “Full-time” carries little meaning for either school or work, since they might reach both thresholds at the same time. Anything extracurricular comes at an opportunity cost.

Over the years, Transactional Universities have learned how to accommodate this new type of student. Their distinction has been more in delivery than design. They pioneered online course options long before the prestigious universities did. Instead of emulating the upper-echelons of academe, they raised their local, public, student-centered mission to a calling. Their goal is not selectivity but accessibility. They take pride in how many students they graduate rather than how many they screen out.

Their full-time faculty have high teaching loads and high expectations that they will spend time advising and coaching their students, not drifting off to conferences and research projects. Especially in major metropolitan areas, part-time faculty – often local practitioners in their professions – have become the majority. In contrast to bloated, bucolic campuses, the transactional venue is no-frills and utilitarian. Transactional Universities experience annual stress as they fight for financial support from their state legislators (who typically favor their flagship alma mater instead).

And then came the coronavirus pandemic.

In March, universities throughout America pivoted mid-semester to a transactional model, as they sent their students off to learn remotely. Now the question is what will happen in the fall. Will students be able to move back to traditional campuses? Will these schools be able to reconfigure a robust academic and residential experience that still honors social distance? Will collegiate sports and student life return in some new, more modified form? What will happen to the vast, costly facilities and army of faculty and staff on campus?

In other words, to what extent will the new normal for elite schools simply be the transactional at a higher price?

These questions preoccupy America’s students and their families – as they try to decide if the premier universities will be worth the cost, debt, and ordeal, particularly for those who have lost their income and employment. Many of these prominent universities are in viral hotspots at risk of future disruption beyond their control. There is no guarantee their students will not be sent home again.

Perhaps this is the moment for the Transactional University to shine at least as a transitional solution: a practical means of accumulating college credit close to home. These schools provide safety, reassurance, and affordability, through a proven history of classroom and online learning. Perhaps this will be an opportunity for the Transactional University to emerge from its shadow and bond with a post-pandemic generation.

Jay A. Halfond is a Professor of the Practice Emeritus at Boston University. This blog was originally posted on LinkedIn