Admissions

Colleges Rate Their Own Pandemic Response Strategies

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Like many of us, higher education didn't see the COVID-19 train coming. For many colleges and universities, the effects of the economy on enrollment had them distracted. Some were trying to figure out how to walk the fine line between costs and recruitment.


We all know how quickly college costs have been rising, outstripping inflation by a significant margin. CNBC explains one of the chief reasons for that: Declining public funds have caused college tuition to skyrocket, leaving many families either with insurmountable student loan debt or unable to afford a higher education altogether, according to a new analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Of course, more than a few students and families have had second thoughts about loan debt. Those second thoughts have led to alternate educational paths, such as vocational training, coding bootcamps, military service, or direct entry into the workforce, where possible. Thus, for many colleges, the battle for enrollment proved to be consuming. Then came COVID-19.

Most Colleges Give Themselves a "C" Rating

COVID-19's arrival turned college life upside down spring semester. Colleges sent their students home and amazingly turned their in-person courses into virtual ones. Support personnel and staff who remained on campus underwent a radical cultural change, implementing complex safety precautions in hopes of ridding and preventing viral spread. Imagine trying to meet the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Here's just a portion of what colleges were told to avoid:

Use of public buses, campus buses/shuttles or other high occupancy enclosed vehicles with limited ventilation and/or that require students, faculty, or staff to have sustained close contact with others …

  • Students, faculty, and staff do not/are not required to follow steps such as proper use of face masks, social distancing, hand hygiene to protect themselves and others.
  • Students and faculty regularly engage in in-person learning, activities, and events.
  • Students, faculty, and staff attend large out-of-class social gatherings and events.
  • Students and faculty freely share objects.
  • Students, faculty, and staff dine in indoor dining rooms without social distancing.
  • Irregularly scheduled cleaning and disinfection of frequently touched areas

These are just some of the requirements colleges have had to meet in order to bring back students this fall. Some schools have been more successful than others in doing that. In light of all the reports I've seen on College Confidential forums from students and parents about how well pandemic management has been going on various campuses, I've often wondered how colleges have seen their own efforts, whether good or not so good. That's why I was intrigued to see the results of the latest Kaplan survey. Here are some highlights, taken from Kaplan's press release, along with some of my bold emphasis:

When evaluating how they reopened their campuses this fall amid coronavirus, most colleges and universities acknowledge that they have not earned high marks, according to a new Kaplan survey of admissions officers at over 300 institutions of higher learning across the United States.

[301 admissions officers from the nation's top national, regional and liberal arts colleges and universities – as compiled from U.S. News & World Report – were polled by e-mail between September 16 and September 29, 2020. Percentages are rolled up to the nearest whole number.]

When asked to give a grade to their industry's 'reopening' performance as a whole, taking into account factors like implementing new safety precautions, delivering courses, and communicating with students and parents, only four percent gave an A; 36 percent gave a B; 51 percent, a C; 9 percent, a D; and one percent, an F.

The survey, which spanned two weeks from mid- to late-September, was conducted amid reports of coronavirus outbreaks at several large universities across the country. It came at the same time when some schools, which had decided to conduct classes in-person, did an about face and instead moved to strictly online.

Poor Grades Driven by Several Factors

Admissions officers who gave reopening a poor grade shared the following anecdotes and opinions:

  • "Both parents and students wanted to come back to campus. The schools that went online only tended to have huge endowments or other financial support. Schools did the best they could in the environment they are in and the lack of strong leadership at the national level made it almost impossible for any school to open well."
  • "I think that too many tried to reopen in person without enough safety precautions in place. Too many students got sick, and then if those universities closed and switched to online, then those students potentially spread the virus even more when they moved back home."
  • "Very few schools did this well ...The 'waffling' by most institutions did nothing but create confusion and anxiety with students and parents."
  • "A majority of the reopening plans that have been implemented were based on the idea that college students will suddenly stop acting like college students. Expecting students to sit in their dorms and not try to be social at all (whether on or off campus) was not realistic. Also testing plans were not thought out well at all. Some schools have not made access to testing easy, whether it be charging students for testing or threatening disciplinary action if students have a positive test. In some cases on our campus, students do not feel that they can reach out for health services and other support without having a 'COVID witch hunt' come after them."

High Marks Driven by Extensive Safety Measures

Admission officers who awarded above average scores shared the following:

  • "I know that great amounts of time and attention were given to reopening steps by most all institutions, and only a few have experienced high numbers of COVID-19 infections after reopening. The safety steps for most schools are extensive."
  • "I think many colleges and universities reopened in accordance with state guidelines. In my experience, universities also developed internal steering committees and COVID-19 response teams that evaluated all factors at play in reopening. Often these review committees and standards of reopening were more cautionary than the state's phased return plan."
  • "Students should have access to in-person study and an in-person community during their college years. I believe we can do this even amidst a global pandemic. Colleges have taken the necessary procedures to mitigate the spread while students are on campus."
  • "It is the first time for all of us. I would be less lenient come fall 2021."

In regards to the survey's results, Kaplan's executive director of college admissions programs, Isaac Botier, notes:

"We know how challenging a time this has been for everyone on the higher education landscape, from administrators, to health officials, to faculty and staff, to students, to parents and everyone else that is part of a college community. To say that the past six months have been 'unprecedented' would be an understatement.

"What college admissions officers are telling us in this survey is that there is a lot of room for improvement in multiple areas, from education delivery to communication to safety procedures. We think this self-awareness is positive, and many shared plans on how they'll be making improvements in the coming weeks and months. Fundamentally, they all understand that safety comes first."

For the colleges that were disappointed in their reopening performance, I think they believed students would suppress their social ("partying") instincts, as one comment above reflects. More Kaplan surveys will be forthcoming to explore other aspects of this unprecedented academic year.