Over the past few months, the coronavirus has caused havoc and intense discussion in university administration offices across the country. In March, colleges and universities throughout America made announcements that in-person classes, graduations, and social events were canceled. Today, lecture halls remain empty, sports have been called off, labs are closed, and students have finished their semesters online. From Spring 2019 to Spring 2020, college enrollment has decreased by a surprising 0.5%. It is reasonable to predict that this number will fluctuate as students weigh up investing in a college education during an international pandemic. This issue impacts young people from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds and crosses party lines. After the pandemic settles, the future of higher education may prove to involve online lectures, socially distant dorm setups, and shortened in-person time on campus.
College presidents are aware of the pressing demands on their institutions to reopen. Most small colleges and universities are facing financial ruin if classes do not occur in-person. In May, the American Council on Education released a poll that suggested, 79% of 192 college presidents surveyed said that summer or fall enrollment was the most pressing issue to them. In Pennsylvania, Lafayette College predicts that it will face a deficit of around $60 million if remote learning occurs in the Fall, and many colleges have already furloughed employees. Many college towns are facing business closure if they do not find a way to open up their colleges. Thus, over half of the presidents said that it was “very likely” that in-person classes will take place for some length of the fall semester. However, colleges could still lose incoming and returning students.
Students are hesitant to embrace a “new normal” college experience that feels impersonal. Many incoming students have expressed concerns about online learning and the lack of traditional campus life. Of more than 2,000 graduating high school seniors, around 10% have made alternative plans. Similarly, 26% of those currently in college said, “they were unlikely to return to their current college or university in the fall.”
Many of these students are unwilling to pay the exorbitant college tuition fees or put themselves in student loan debt to attend “Zoom University.” Before COVID-19, the average price of a 4-year degree is approximately $122,000, and that price is drastically higher at small liberal art schools and “top tier” institutions. Students paid for the college experience, the brand name, and a level of independence. Many students cherish the traditional college experience of living in dorms, meeting new people, engaging in spirited educational debate, and watching sports games. Indeed, schools like Penn State, Harvard, and Ohio State base their brand on their campus life, but they will face difficulty attracting students if in-person classes are deemed too dangerous. It will be a tough sell to get students to pay high tuition fees to watch lectures on Zoom.
This reluctance to attend higher education is also partially due to the psychological effects of distance learning and isolation on college students. In a recent survey by Active Minds, a nonprofit promoting mental health, 80% of college students said that their mental health worsened as a result of the pandemic. Financial challenges and lack of access to mental health resources contribute to students’ anxiety and depression. Moreover, the bleak statistics showing that the unemployment rate is growing the fastest for Americans 25 and under does not inspire confidence. Many students want the campus to reopen because it is their only form of readily available mental health services. While teletherapy is an option offered by many institutions, there are restrictions on who campus therapists can help based on the students’ location. For many who rely on college healthcare, campuses can’t open fast enough.
Additionally, colleges have no consistent pattern when choosing to return to in-person classes or move entirely online next semester. Each choice is dependent on the needs of the student body and the financial resources of the institution. The California State University system and Harvard Medical School have opted for a strictly online learning experience in the Fall. A majority of universities are planning to have students return to campus, including Syracuse University, Boston University, and New York University. Out of the 830 colleges and universities that The Chronicle of Higher Education is tracking, 65% are planning for in-person classes.
The most popular option for the fall semester is the implementation of hybrid classes. Some classes will be offered online, and smaller ones will be able to meet in person. Courses with fewer students will be able to move into larger lecture halls where social distancing guidelines can be enforced. However, The Center for Disease Control’s COVID guidelines for higher learning indicates “small in-person classes, activities, and events” where “individuals remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and do not share objects” are at the medium level of risk for spreading the disease. The CDC also recommends that residence halls should not be open to full capacity, which poses a problem to many colleges and universities.
School administrators are faced with the tough decision of either delaying or starting the fall term early to allow some form of in-person classes. The University of South Carolina and Purdue University are just a few schools adopting the strategy to end all in-person courses and lectures by Thanksgiving without any breaks during the Fall. Students will finish finals online at home and will remain there until a plan is announced for the spring of 2021. Other schools have opted to delay the start of fall classes until the middle of September and end the term in January. Many school officials, who deem students who travel a significant risk, are attempting to minimize extended and frequent periods of travel.
The universities and colleges are already facing students’ lawsuits for ending in-person classes early, but risking a wave of infection would also open them up to legal challenges. Columbia, Brown, Penn, and Purdue are all being sued by disgruntled students. They claim they should be entitled to a significant refund because campuses shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic. If students attend college in the Fall, and an outbreak of coronavirus occurred, parents and students would most likely sue the schools for placing student lives at risk. Many professors at risk of infection, could also sue the university if they are forced to teach classes in an unsafe working environment. The university is in a tough situation where money loss and student safety seem risky in either scenario.
Regardless of the decision to open in the Fall, the future of higher education may have changed forever. College administrations face the unprecedented challenge of implementing a vision of higher education that somehow combats the lack of traditional college experience, financial instability, and the mental health burdens that isolation will place on students. Yet, many students wish to return to the typical college experience, which may not exist in the same format in the future.
Grace Brangwynne is a student at the University of Connecticut. She studies Political Science as part of the MPA/MPP Fast-Track program. Grace has interned in a variety of local government positions at the Town of Seymour.
The college experience has been broken since the late sixties/early seventies, with the influx of Viet Nam avoidance students. The financial and social model for the campus never recovered. Tuition became a “what can we get away with” scheme, and actual scholarship became a participation award. COVID responses do not address these problems. Indeed, they exacerbate them by dramatically proving that “Ted Talks” are as educational as college class attendance. The University model needs fundamental rethinking. But that will have to be a proactive process, not one reactive to a global health and economic breakdown.