Normal spring semesters have gone for most colleges. Summer classes too will be online or canceled. But even as the federal and state governments say the reopening of society will depend on many factors in the fight against coronavirus, university chiefs are already trying to figure out how to handle new students and new courses in the fall.
“Most institutions need somewhere around a six-week to two-month runway to … be able to be open,” said Barbara Mistick, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
She said some of the more than 1,000 higher learning institutions her group represents across the country are now considering keeping their campuses shut to students in the fall semester. “There is concern about bringing students back to campus too soon and perhaps having an outbreak.”
While that’s a general concern for schools, businesses and any place where large numbers of people can gather, colleges and universities have extra considerations, Mistick said.
“Most institutions have students that are coming from all sorts of different states around the country,” she said. “Some states are still in the midst of the crisis. The curve isn’t flattening everywhere at the same exact moment.”
And that’s before you factor in the many international students who enroll in US institutions from all over the world.
But there is a fear that keeping classes online for health concerns could lead to students falling behind academically, with some research indicating that attrition rates for online-only students are higher than those for traditional students.
Then there’s the economic crunch. The growing financial crisis is creeping into the way students think about their futures. A recent survey of around 30,000 US high school students found more than 80% of juniors and seniors since the outbreak were more concerned about paying for college as jobs started to disappear. Schools, too, face economic dangers – their endowments were rocked by market tumult and they could lose revenue from the loss of lucrative programs like summer school.
At Howard University in Washington, admissions officers have seen a higher than expected number of incoming freshmen commit to come to school in August, whether the campus is open or not. But that’s not as good an indicator as people might think, said university president Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick.
“Intent to come, I want to be clear, may not translate to students actually showing up,” he said. “The full economic impact is not there [yet.]”
The new school year is in limbo. And even if students are committed to learning whether online or in-person, there are all the other parts of the college experience.
“Human contact is really important and that is something that we will be missing out on,” said Sarah Fahmy, a PhD candidate at University of Colorado Boulder.
Frederick from Howard would agree.
“I often say at orientation that you may spend 20% of your time in a classroom while you are here. The 80% that occurs outside of the classroom is just as important for your overall education as the time spent in the classroom,” he said.
“And that is our challenge: How do we recreate that.”