Coronavirus (COVID-19) and higher education: What’s the plan for colleges and universities?

Filed Under: Costs

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As we get into the thick of summer, anyone who had plans to return to or start college or graduate school this fall is anxiously wondering what their semester – and school year – may look like. What plans have schools announced? Will those change? What will higher education look like this year and beyond? Here’s what you need to know.

SCHOOLS HAVE MADE PLANS…

The Chronicle of Higher Education is keeping a running list, which it updates regularly, of colleges and universities’ plans for 2021. Of the nearly 1,000 schools the Chronicle is tracking, the large majority – 65 percent – are still planning for an in-person semester in the fall. Thirteen percent are “proposing a hybrid model” of distance and on-campus learning, 8 percent are “considering a range of scenarios,” another 8 percent will offer online-only learning, and five percent are still waiting to decide on a plan.

Here are some details of some of the plans listed in the Chronicle – which vary widely based on size, location, and funding.

Grinnell College, a private liberal arts college in Iowa, falls under the Chronicle’s “considering a range of scenarios” classification. According to Grinnell administrators, the college is planning to have a “low-density” campus and offer an “optional” summer term. The start dates for these terms: 

  • Fall 1 (F1 2020): August 24 – October 14
  • Fall 2 (F2 2020): October 22 – December 16
  • Spring 1 (S1 2021): February 1 – March 24
  • Spring 2 (S2 2021): April 1 – May 25
  • Summer (SU 2021): June 7 – July 28

Tulane University in New Orleans is, per the Chronicle, “planning for in-person.” Tulane’s administration has said that the semester will begin August 19, with plans to have staff and students teach, live, and work on-campus. The semester will end before Thanksgiving on November 24. “This accelerated semester is intended to reduce travel in order to promote health and safety,” the administration said in its announcement. 

MIT announced today that it was working on an accelerated timeline for the small semester, and would “only bring some of our undergraduates back to campus,” and give each undergrad their own room. 

The University of Arizona is, like Tulane, planning for an in-person term. The University has laid out general test, trace and treat plans, including a specific texting-based plan to spot symptoms, for faculty and staff, and will require face coverings on campus. 

The University of Minnesota, also planning for an in-person, shortened semester like Tulane and Arizona, says it will offer options for distance learning and instruction for students and faculty uncomfortable with returning to campus, as well as “increased cleaning and sanitization measures” and limiting capacity in dining halls. 

University of Washington is listed in the Chronicle as “proposing a hybrid model”: UW says in its official coronavirus task force page that it anticipates the semester “will include both in-person and remote elements.” UW President Ana Mari Cauce told KUOW in May that students anxious about returning to campus during the pandemic will not be allowed to defer their admission. 

Like Grinnell, Rutgers University in New Jersey is also listed as “planning for a range of scenarios.” The budget may give some more clues: in mid-June, the university passed a budget that anticipates a more than 40 percent decline in income from housing, dining and parking, indicating that the university is expecting many of its 70,000 students to stay away from campus. Rutgers will switch to a new president on July 1, and the current president says any final decision on reopening will be left to his successor. 

…BUT IMPLEMENTING THEM COULD BE A CHALLENGE…

Even as universities plow ahead with plans to reopen, students, faculty, staff and parents are expressing safety concerns. The Boston Globe reported last week on the fears of area professors as big schools move forward with their fall semesters. 

“It’s a bad plan,” Jason Prentice, a 15-year veteran of BU’s College of Arts and Sciences, its largest school, told the Globe. “I think it’s a dangerous plan, frankly. I’m concerned about myself and concerned about my family.” The Globe reports that “BU expects that most professors will teach in the classroom to both the students in front of them and the ones participating online, adding to their teaching load and responsibilities.”

One mom of a CU Boulder student says she’s “skeptical” of the university’s plans to open in the fall with staggered class times, to-go dining, and other precautions. “There has already been one email from the provost about punishing students who fail to follow health guidance (a small-scale breakout last week was traced to off-campus partying among some students who remained in town for the summer),” she writes. 

…AND PLANS COULD CHANGE

Duke University President Vincent Price emphasized in an address to the university community in May that attendance and schedules for the semester will be decided by the end of June, and warned students and faculty that they should expect more details on reopening later in the summer as public health advice could evolve. “Like every other part of society, we will be resilient and creative and adapt to the new reality,” Price said.

“Here, we’re planning for in-person classes, and our best prediction suggests that we should be able to do that,” UW President Ana Mari Cauce told KUOW. “But, no matter how much we plan, right now the virus is in charge. We might be set to open on September 22, then September 15 something happens that changes everything.”

And some colleges are still keeping students waiting as the summer drags on. Bowdoin College, a small liberal arts school in Maine, told its student body in early June that administrators were still deciding the best course of action for the fall. “I have previously indicated my hope to announce a decision by June 15, but it may be that it will come later next week or early the following week,” President Clayton Rose wrote in a letter to students and parents. “I am acutely aware that everyone is anxious to learn the plan for the fall, and that there is considerable work ahead to prepare for the new semester, and I will make an announcement as soon as I can.”

THE FUTURE OF HIGHER ED

The myriad of big and small changes schools are preparing for this fall could be the tip of the iceberg in a radical shift in how we approach higher education. 

In an interview with NYU Stern marketing professor Scott Galloway published in May, New York Magazine asked Galloway about how big tech may seize this opportunity as schools scramble with a new reality of distance learning:

At universities, we’re having constant meetings, and we’ve all adopted this narrative of “This is unprecedented, and we’re in this together,” which is Latin for “We’re not lowering our prices, bitches.” Universities are still in a period of consensual hallucination with each saying, “We’re going to maintain these prices for what has become, overnight, a dramatically less compelling product offering.”

In fact, the coronavirus is forcing people to take a hard look at that $51,000 tuition they’re spending. Even wealthy people just can’t swallow the jagged pill of tuition if it doesn’t involve getting to send their kids away for four years. It’s like, “Wait, my kid’s going to be home most of the year? Staring at a computer screen?” There’s this horrific awakening being delivered via Zoom of just how substandard and overpriced education is at every level.

There will be a dip, the mother of all V’s, among the top-50 universities, where the revenues are hit in the short run and then technology will expand their enrollments and they will come back stronger. In ten years, it’s feasible to think that MIT doesn’t welcome 1,000 freshmen to campus; it welcomes 10,000. What that means is the top-20 universities globally are going to become even stronger. What it also means is that universities Nos. 20 to 50 are fine. But Nos. 50 to 1,000 go out of business or become a shadow of themselves. I don’t want to say that education is going to be reinvented, but it’s going to be dramatically different.

Ultimately, universities are going to partner with companies to help them expand. I think that partnership will look something like MIT and Google partnering. Microsoft and Berkeley. Big-tech companies are about to enter education and health care in a big way, not because they want to but because they have to.