Admissions

Will Your College Open This Fall?

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It's the middle of April. While there may be an isolated exception or two, colleges are now finishing up their spring semesters/terms using online technology. Students are allegedly following hastily revised course outlines from the privacy and comfort of their homes. Granted, some students do not have the resources to do this, since they lack access to the internet or even physical computers at home, but colleges have made wide-ranging efforts to see that as many students as possible can participate in distance learning.


Grading, in most cases, has moved to the pass/fail mode (more gently referred to as "pass/not pass") and some professors have even suggested simply ending classes and giving everyone an A! I've written about this extreme approach before.

If you've been following the news this past week or so, the main topic, other than COVID-19 rates, has centered on "reopening" the economy and what it may take to get back to normal in America. I don't think things will ever be completely "normal" again, but that's a subject for another article or two. What is directly related to reopening is the issue of fall semester 2020 for colleges across the land.

On-Campus Classes in Question

What got me thinking about this question is an interesting article: Universities Begin Considering Canceling In-Person Classes Until 2021, which begins with, "A number of universities are beginning to consider the possibility that in-person classes may not resume until 2021."

This is dramatic news and, in my view, portends more than just a delayed start to the new academic year (more about that later). Here are a few highlights from The Epoch Times coverage:

... Boston University (BU) has already canceled all "in-person summer activities" on its primary campus. But the school's … recovery plan includes protocols should officials deem it not safe to return in-person for the fall semester. If so, classes would continue to be held remotely through the fall semester.

"The Recovery Plan recognizes that if, in the unlikely event that public health officials deem it unsafe to open in the fall of 2020, then the University's contingency plan envisions the need to consider a later in-person return, perhaps in January 2021," the university said in an online statement.

The school will "offer remote learning courses this summer," and it plans to "continue providing the minimal housing and dining services that are currently available."

President Robert A. Brown sounded hopeful that Boston University would allow students to return in the fall — a "best-case scenario" — and until then would focus its efforts on finding "the best and safest way" to do that. Jean Morrison, the provost and the chief academic officer, told NBC10 Boston that while suspending the fall semester is a possibility, it's not the one they're aiming for. "We're focusing our planning on a fall return to campus," she said.

The news underscores just how upending the coronavirus has been to the reliable beats of higher education, where schools are facing once-unimaginable changes to their ways of life ...

Harvard's president, Lawrence S. Bacow, noted last week, "One of the issues is that at some point decisions will have to be made and there will still be a tremendous amount of uncertainty with regard to the virus." Part of the uncertainty centers around what some experts are predicting as an autumn resurgence of COVID-19 infections, for both previously uninfected individuals and those deemed to have been "recovered" from infection.

Other schools questioning a fall restart include Oregon State (OSU):

As for the fall semester, OSU spokesman Steve Clark told The Oregonian, "Only the novel coronavirus will determine what happens. We can hope for a full return in fall 2020, but hope is not a strategy. So that is why we are going to prepare as best we can for every possible contingency."

Well said. Hope is definitely not a strategy. The University of Arizona is banking on optimism:

"We are cautiously optimistic that the fall semester will be able to launch with the normal face-to-face campus experience, but of course we will prioritize the health and well-being of our community in making that decision," the university said in a statement to the Arizona Daily Star.

Intermittent Closings, Reopenings a Possibility

Other experts proffer that things could get even more chaotic. According to Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and visiting scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health:

... "I think colleges should all definitely make plans for delaying start dates and for intermittent closings and reopenings because epidemiology modeling suggests we may have to go into open and close waves until potentially even 2022," he said.

Researchers from the Chan school said Tuesday [April 14] that the United States may have to endure social distancing measures, such as stay-at-home orders and school closures, until 2022 ...

That's a grim outlook, although the first quarter of 2020 has already shown that some expert predictions, especially "models," have been grossly inaccurate and excessively doom-oriented. Colleges, no doubt, are hoping that this is the case here, where such sensational phrases as "school closures until 2022" appear in print.

This unprecedented situation involves much more than just delays of person-to-person classroom time. It cuts straight to the core of the entire higher education enterprise: students. One long article that addresses a reality obscured by high-profile health-related COVID-19 headlines warns that 'We're on the edge of the precipice': How the pandemic could shatter college dreams. "Some high school seniors are dropping their first-choice schools in favor of colleges that are cheaper. Others are taking a year off so they can help bail out their families. The pandemic and the nation's brutal economic collapse are combining to crush the college hopes of low-income and first-generation students."

In a past article, well before the emergence of virus-induced disruption, I noted that a "sea change" could spread across higher education. I believe the term "precipice" is a harbinger of that change. From the article:

... Some high school seniors are dropping their first-choice schools in favor of colleges that are cheaper and closer to home, early surveys have found. Others are thinking about going part-time, or taking a gap year so they can work and bail out families whose breadwinners are suddenly out of work. Those who work with low-income students worry freshmen from poor families who were sent home this semester may never return and high school seniors won't get the hands-on help they need with their financial aid applications ...

... "We're on the edge of the precipice," said Bridgette Davis, a researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago who is studying 31 low-income students navigating their first year of college. Many have told Davis they are now less confident that they will successfully finish their current college semester, let alone re-enroll in the fall." ...

... [Financial] Difficulties could hit millions of students — about 6.8 million low-income college students received Pell Grants in 2018-19, according to The College Board. Pell Grants, unlike loans, don't have to be repaid and are aimed at people with the greatest financial need. The maximum is $6,345 for the 2020-21 year.

Early national surveys of high school seniors are showing those who initially were bound for four-year colleges changing their first-choice schools for something less expensive. Some of those surveyed say they are thinking of giving up on going to college in the fall entirely." ...

... Tamara Hiler, Third Way education director: "We know already that there are these education deserts," she said. "Given the risk of the financial instability that is likely going to lead to additional school closures in the coming year or in the coming years, I'm concerned that there's going to be even fewer options for low-income students when it comes to making a postsecondary choice." ...

The sea change, as I see it, is already in progress. COVID-19 has caused a high tide, if not a tsunami, of financial consequences for both colleges and economically disadvantaged students and families. How higher educational institutions will deal with this remains to be seen. As financial resources (alumni giving, endowments, financial aid reserves, tuition, etc.) dwindle and an economic downturn (some say depression) diminishes certain schools' enrollment numbers, colleges are going to have to make significant changes to stay pertinent and solvent.

The Ivies and other so-called "elites" will always be able to fill their dorms, but smaller, less financially stable institutions will suffer. My title's question might be better stated as, "Will your college open this fall ... or still be in business?"

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