This may be the most challenging time ever for college administrators. Prior to the onslaught of COVID-19, many colleges were wrestling with dropping enrollments caused by two main factors: (1) the ever-increasing high cost of higher education, and (2) a trend toward non-college vocational education.
Gap Years, Waitlists Affected
Now that we're three months into the full-blown coronavirus pandemic, the fallout that has accumulated from it has added a third threat factor — large numbers of college students have changed their plans for Fall 2020. Two leading indicators for this are students planning on taking a gap year for the 2020-2021 school year and a sharp decline in the number of FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) renewals.
The expected rise in gap years is thought to be motivated by a strong dislike for online classes, which many colleges are planning to incorporate this year, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, safety concerns about infection on campus. Surveys have revealed the magnitude of the gap year increase:
… Roughly one in six high school seniors say they definitely or most likely will change their plans to attend college in the fall because of the coronavirus, according to a survey of 1,171 students conducted April 21 through 24 by the higher education market research firm Art & Science Group. Of those, 16 percent say they will take a gap year.
That compares to fewer than 3 percent of first-time first-year students at four-year institutions who previously went to college soon after graduating high school, but first took off a year or more, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles …
This is one reason why this year's college applicants who have been placed on waitlists stand a better statistical chance to be admitted, since colleges will be looking to fill as many incoming class spots as possible:
… Admissions officers are advising that waitlists may become even more vital to round out their incoming class, as they anticipate under-enrollment for the Class of 2024 … the current situation may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend a college of their top choice for which they were originally not admitted. Therefore, students offered a waitlist position may want to more seriously consider when electing (or not) to select a position on the waitlist, as well as continue demonstrating their interest in a particular campus throughout the spring.
FAFSA Renewals Drop
As for students opting out of this school year for reasons of cost, data indicate a steep decline in FAFSA renewals, with most non-renewals happening among low-income students. Almost 250,000 fewer returning students from the lowest-income backgrounds have renewed their FAFSA for the 2020-21 cycle and FAFSA renewals were down 4.7 percent overall compared to last year, a decline of more than 350,000 students.
This is significant on multiple levels. First, a drop of this magnitude reduces the number of applications colleges will receive, thus potentially lowering their prized, rankings-related selectivity (the percentage of applicants they can deny). Second, and probably more concerning, the sharp decline in low-income student applications could negatively impact colleges' diversity efforts, where socioeconomically disadvantaged students are pursued.
… The decrease is even steeper among students from low-income backgrounds, the analysis found. Through April 15, the total number of renewals from students with annual family incomes of less than $25,000 was down by more than 8 percent, compared to a 4 percent decline for those with family incomes of $25,000 to $50,000, and just 1 percent for those with incomes of more than $50,000 ...
The term "perfect storm" comes to mind. The elements of falling pre-pandemic enrollment, now greatly accelerated by COVID-19 — plus the gap year phenomenon and the FAFSA decline — add up to a scary sea of uncertainty for colleges and universities across America. The logical question that emerges is: How is higher education dealing with all this?
Some Colleges Eye Hybrid Plans
Many years ago, I worked in the publications division of a defense contractor. Their marketing tagline was "Intelligence is the best defense." Colleges are now scrambling to gather the best intelligence they can about student plans and how to effectively incorporate safety protocols within existing academic requirements. The planning process for schools hoping to bring students back to campus for Fall 2020 has been a combination of careful calculation, intensive budget analysis and a hopeful roll of the dice.
As we enter the second half of June, with summer officially less than a week away, Fall 2020 begins to slowly but steadily come into focus, for better or worse. An Inside Higher Ed article tells us that as colleges continue to evaluate their options, "Hybrid models, longer days and shortened semesters are among the popular planning options."
The so-called "hybrid" models comprise both in-person and online classes. The thinking here is to accommodate a range of student preferences and safety practices. One example of a forced hybrid approach operating right now is being used to wrap up spring semester. Students were sent home mid-March when the severity of COVID-19 became apparent. At that point, classes were segued to online formats and will continue through finals.
Some Fall 2020 hybrid plans now include an early start in early to mid-August, with a semester wrap-up and student departure from campus before Thanksgiving, with finals to be administered online. Plans vary, though. Here are some highlights from Inside Higher Ed:
… Changing the academic calendar has been a popular option for administrators who are hoping to reopen campuses. Many institutions, including Michigan State University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and Miami University of Ohio have followed the trend set by others, such as the University of Notre Dame, for a fall semester that either ends or goes online by Thanksgiving. Sending students home early can help avoid the second wave of coronavirus cases predicted by some experts, administrators said. Most of these universities also have chosen to forgo a fall break, typically held in October, this coming school year.
Other institutions have said they will expand their normal terms over the course of the year, as a way to make classes and campuses less dense. Stanford University, for example, announced that in addition to beginning and ending the fall quarter early, the university will spread instruction over four quarters, including the summer. Only about half of undergraduates will be allowed on campus in fall. Students who are permitted on campus will switch with their peers each subsequent quarter ...
The rotating reduced-student-body-size approach that Stanford is planning has also been proposed at the high school level. A local high school in my area has come out with a half-and-half plan for this fall. School officials see half of the large student body reporting to school only on Mondays and Tuesdays. The other half will report only on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will be reserved for online instruction for all, with no students present in school.
Planning Is Key
The level of planning and organization required to effect these types of approaches must be considerable. I also have to wonder about the increase of labor hours for faculty, who must not only adapt their classes for both in-person and online delivery but also assure bug-free (and cheat-free) computer-based assignments and exams.
As I've mentioned before, my prime concern regarding students who will reside on or near campus this fall is, for lack of a better term, "the human nature of college students." Schools can have all the detailed safety guidelines in effect that they want, but enforcing them to prevent the transmission of this extremely highly infectious virus is going to be a frustrating campaign. Here are the efforts Inside Higher Ed notes as being undertaken by some schools that will come face to face with the human nature of college students:
… ACHA guidelines also recommend colleges require face coverings in all residential common areas and encourage them in academic settings.
Many colleges have said they will provide training on guidelines as well as masks and hand sanitizer. Some, including Stanford, also have said they will expect students to stay local during the fall and avoid unnecessary travel.
Whether or not colleges will choose to enforce these guidelines with punitive measures still remains to be seen. Although large parties are a hallmark of some students' experiences, colleges have largely not made announcements about what, if anything, will be done to prevent large unofficial gatherings.
Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University, told CNBC that she believes students will participate in the measures and adhere to guidelines …
To President Paxon, I say, "Good luck with all that!" There has to be some kind of enforcement if these measures are to be effective.
… Punitive measures to enforce social distancing may be unpopular with students. In the spring, Princeton University told students on campus that if they were caught not following social distancing guidelines they could be evicted from on-campus housing. Some students said this was unnecessarily strict and dangerous for students who had nowhere else to go …
It's not a pretty picture. The "business as usual" days for higher education (and many of us) are over and will likely not return. The COVID-19 pandemic is an asteroid that has crashed into our lives. For those of us involved with matters of college, particularly students and the parents of those students, the coming school year will be one of uncertainty, anxiety and frustration, but — hopefully — safety and good health for everyone.
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