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At CSU, an economics course which asks students about the value of life during the coronavirus pandemic

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Posted at 4:59 PM, Dec 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-09 22:18:42-05

FORT COLLINS, Colo. - What is more dangerous: The novel coronavirus or a crippled economy?

In Colorado State University Professor Terry Iverson's course, you're welcome to hold any opinion you like, just so long as you can back it up.

"Economists think all the time about trade-offs, and here the trade-offs are obvious," Iverson told Denver7. "It is more or less the economic burden of social distancing, which turns out to be quite large, potentially. But offset against the weight of saving lives. It's very rudimentary, but you have to think carefully about those components to have a useful discussion about it."

The course, "Economics and Covid-19", is introductory level. Taught by Iverson and a rotating panel of guest lecturers, students argue everything from social distancing to environmental benefits to — in an extreme example — the monetary value to human life. One student suggested lifetime earnings, another proposed adding up the black market value of a person's organs.

"It really struck me as 'life is cheap' in this moment," said Iverson.

An added benefit of the course is that a student's perspective could change based on the news of the day. For example, the advent of a COVID-19 vaccine.

"If you think the vaccine isn't going to arrive for two years, then the kind of path of letting go suddenly doesn't look that bad and might actually make sense. But if you think the vaccine is going to arrive in six months, it drastically changes the calculation," Iverson said. "They (students) responded energetically to opportunities to engage real data and see what's actually happening. I think there's a certain distrust of media sources and people seem to want to see the concrete information myself and engage that, which may go hand in hand with where we are as a country right now."

Fittingly, a course on the discomfort caused by COVID-19 is taught online. Most of the 60+ students leave their cameras off during lectures. It can seem like students aren't engaged, but according to freshman Dayton McGrail, this is one of the few courses that's been worth the price of admission this semester.

"I look forward to the course every single day. It's the most interactive experience I have with any of my professors. I don't even know what a normal college experience is, but this is the closest I can guess it would be. In my chemistry course, I don't think I've ever actually seen my chemistry professor," McGrail told Denver7 with a smile.

McGrail is finishing her semester from her home in Michigan. Outside of a few people in her dorm hall, she's been unable to meet new people during her first semester at college.

Iverson, who told Denver7 he thinks remote learning is "terrible," says he understands the frustration students are feeling.

"These are kids who basically had their senior year canceled. There's a lot of disappointment. A lot of them feel the online experience isn't worth paying for," Iverson said.

McGrail may make up for lost time down the road. After a semester of discussing the pandemic's impact, she's considering extending her time in college to allow more time for the economy to recover.

"I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I still am. I'm thinking of medical school to a certain extent. And I'm like, if medical school is happening then maybe I can delay getting into the job market in a bit and it will be better in the future."

"I also thought about being an epidemiologist. I think the job market for epidemiology will be a lot better after all of this. I have high hopes, but it is something that's on my mind," she said.

The course also received attention from The New Yorker. Read their article here.