The basketball jousts between Providence College and the University of Rhode Island have warmed many a cold December night at the Dunk and the Ryan Center. Students and alums flock to cheer their teams on in one of the nation’s oldest intrastate rivalries.

Now it appears the two schools are locked in a grim competition for the most Covid 19 cases. So far, PC Is leading with more than 200 cases; URI is still in double digits. PC has shut down in-person classes and imposed a stay-at-home order for students living both in dorms and off-campus.

Not to be outdone, URI has cancelled spring break after roistering students in Greek houses spread the virus. The causes at both campuses are the same: booze-fueled parties. 

“There is no sugar-coating the fact that this is a terrible situation,” says PC President Rev. Kenneth Sicard. 

That’s true, but sometimes you just have to wonder what planet school administrators are living on.

How could anyone think it would be wise to bring young people with raging hormones back to campus amid this crisis? When has mixing beer and youth ever led to social distancing? Nobody wants to admit it, but it's difficult to believe that these haphazard reopenings are about anything more than money. Colleges, both private and public, drape their missions in non-profit malarky about doing good. But too often this is a facade to justify their avoidance of taxes.

Money may or may not be the root of evil. But it appears uppermost in the priorities of school honchos.

The cost of a private four-year education approaches $250,000. A generation or two ago, state schools were nearly free. A working-class kid could get a step up the ladder of success without taking on crushing debt. Part-time jobs and some help from your family were all that was needed. 

But taxpayer support for public higher education never rebounded from the Wall Street crash of 2008. The result: Soaring tuitions that have saddled graduates with mountains of debt that prevent them from buying first houses, starting families and getting on with life.

Meanwhile, the schools have glommed onto market-friendly trends to make up for the drop in taxpayer support. This means dependence on big donors and sports revenues to fuel the race to build fancy dorms and arenas.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone when elite school bigwigs looked the other way as wealthy parents made a mockery of admissions standards by bribing their kids into the Stanfords, Yales and Georgetowns. There was a time when the rich got their kids in by donating a library or student union. At least that benefitted all students. Nowadays, as the Varsity Blues federal cases have shown, it’s easier and cheaper to pay off the water polo or tennis coach so you can boast at cocktail parties that your kid attends a top school.

Then there are the racial and economic disparities that have long dogged colleges and universities. A 2019 study found that 20 years after finishing college, the typical white student still owes about $1,000 in student debt, while the typical black borrower owes almost $19,000.

There have been some good moves lately to reckon with debt. One of the best was Gov. Gina Raimondo’s plan that made the Community College of Rhode Island tuition-free. But even that had the unintended effect of hurting another public school --Rhode Island College--which saw enrollment drop because community college became free.

College was once seen as a great equalizer. But today it seems only to heighten society’s inequities. It’s time to invest in students, not country-club amenities. And please students, sober up a bit and help us get back to charting three pointers and rebounds instead of virus transmissions.