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Colleges Struggle with COVID-19 and Distance Learning

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A few days ago, I posted a thread on the College Confidential forum that noted a high degree of college student dissatisfaction with online courses. Initially, the need for online instruction was thought to be the solution for concluding spring semester after colleges evacuated their campuses due to COVID-19. Once the crisis was managed over the summer, everyone thought, then it would be back to campus — and normal — in the fall.


Things aren't working out all that simply, however. There's no guarantee that COVID-19's ferocious infection and death rate will, in fact, be managed adequately, let alone controlled, over the summer. This has put colleges in an extremely difficult spot due to the extreme unpredictability of the virus' behavior and the increasing resistance of Americans to the heavily enforced stay-at-home edicts of state and local governments.

All of this has created a perilous domino effect for colleges. First, student dissatisfaction with online teaching has caused some to start reevaluating their college plans. In a USA Today article, which highlights the conundrum facing colleges, one student spoke out. In "Students are weary of online classes, but colleges can't say whether they'll open in fall 2020," Ryan Sessoms, a marketing student at the University of North Florida, says the transition to online classes has been less than ideal.

... The thought of paying the same amount of tuition for another semester of lackluster classes is a nonstarter. It's harder to find the motivation to complete his assignments, he said, when not surrounded by his peers.

"Fall is my last semester as well," said Sessoms, 24. "All my hard work I have put in, I'd prefer to walk across the stage and wrap up some last-minute connections on campus as well.

"If it's going to be online at the same tuition price, then I'll just wait for the spring semester."

The cessation of tuition, room and board, and fees, create significant deficits for colleges. Students, by nature, are social creatures and want the full social package that college offers. Living at home, in many cases restricted to home, dealing with the isolation of online classes, is about as far away from the campus experience that they can get. Sessoms spoke for legions of students, I'm sure, when he said, "The thought of paying the same amount of tuition for another semester of lackluster classes is a nonstarter."

Survey: Students Not Fond of Distance Learning

At this point, how is the satisfaction level of college students concerning online instruction? In a survey performed by collegereaction.com, two key results tell the tale, reflecting Ryan Sessoms' attitude:

• 77 percent say distance learning is worse or much worse than in-person classes.

• 13 percent say they would take time off from college if distance learning continues next year.

It's that 13 percent that strikes fear into the hearts of college administrators. I wrote about this in Will Your College Open This Fall? and cited the ominous possibility that some schools will defer bringing students back to campus until 2021. As USA Today notes, "College students threatened to revolt if universities put another semester of classes online to avoid spreading the coronavirus – but that's increasingly what campus leaders are considering doing."

How could a student revolt cause a damaging domino effect on colleges? The most obvious question is: Why should a student and his or her family pay 100 percent of on-campus tuition, room and board, and fees when the student isn't on campus? That's an inarguable point, which ripples perilously across college budgets, as USA Today notes:

... The problem: Many colleges are in financial crisis. They need students, with their tuition and housing payments, as much as students need them.

How virus affects higher education: Coronavirus could change where students go to college, if they go at all

The reality is no one knows what the fall semester will look like, said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president for the American Council for Education, a national trade group of universities.

"The coronavirus will determine when colleges and universities can reopen," he said. "All colleges and universities want to open normally, but no college knows if it can."

That's bad news for universities. As the economic impact of the coronavirus continues mostly unabated, many have canceled their summer classes and other activities, such as alumni gatherings or camps that generate revenue.

There are multiple theories as to why colleges are in financial difficulty. Some say that bloated administrative costs are out of control. Others blame the extreme luxuries that schools are adding to lure enrollments:

Gourmet food, Tempur-Pedic mattresses, breath-taking views, world-class gyms: We're not talking five-star hotels, country clubs or your rich friend's mansion. We're talking colleges. Forget cinder block tombs for rooms and tasteless turkey sandwiches for lunch. When it comes to college experiences, some colleges take the Gatsby approach, showering students with glamorous amenities, top-notch food, spectacular dorms, a gorgeous campus, state-of-the-art recreational centers and endless opportunities ...

COVID-19 has delivered a challenge to whatever the reasons are for colleges' money woes:

They're scrambling to make up for lost money. The University of Cincinnati ended its men's soccer program, and St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, announced last week it was cutting men's and women's golf and tennis, along with men's soccer.

Friday, the University of Arizona announced it would furlough employees and may lay some off. The chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System recommended the closure of three campuses.

The financial trouble started when colleges started issuing refunds for housing costs after sending students home and buying licenses and equipment to put courses online. Some students demanded refunds for tuition.

If social distancing requires colleges to keep students at home for another semester, the fallout could remake America's higher education system, upending everything from students' degree attainment to the economies of college towns.

Summer Solutions in Question

As if things weren't unpredictable enough, hopes that COVID-19 can be controlled — and even quelled — over the summer have been shaken by such noted medical experts as Yale School of Public Health Associate Professor Virginia Pitzer, who says:

... we may very well see a resurgence of disease next fall. More importantly, if control measures are lifted too soon, we are likely to see another peak in the disease until enough immunity has built up in the population, or until we are able to develop an effective vaccine ... Consistent disease surveillance is essential to know where we are in the course of the epidemic, when it may have peaked, and when and if a resurgence is occurring once other control measures are relaxed. But ultimately, the epidemic is unlikely to end until enough people have immunity to the virus ...

The legal ramifications of colleges' and other schools' liability for not taking adequate precautions for their students has added to the anxiety and added another layer of unpredictability, as the National Association of Independent Schools notes:

This situation is evolving by the hour. Every school is struggling with what decisions are the "right" ones to make and, in many instances, we may not know what is "right" until we have the benefit of hindsight. Even then, we may not know. With that in mind, the "right" decision is one that considers public health guidance, the law, your school's mission and culture, and your community's safety. What is "right" for one school may not be right for another ...

Students are unhappy with distance learning and separation from campus. The unknowns about COVID-19's behavior has colleges in a financial and operational quagmire. Will this affect new enrollments and current student continuity? Will things ever return to "normal?" These are the realities and questions — insights for solutions are far from 20/20.

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