Colleges wrestle with questions of reopening

Written by Christine Cooke

May 8, 2020

As states begin to reopen their economies, colleges are having to decide how to approach fall semester this year.

As with every sector of the economy, at the heart of the decision is an important question: Should we reopen and risk unnecessary infection, or stay closed and risk more financial fallout?

And it’s more complicated for colleges than for other sectors. College has long been too expensive, and during this time of economic uncertainty students are making financial choices that put schools in an especially precarious position.

To make the decision about reopening, colleges will have to answer some tough questions

Should colleges reopen campus this fall?

A looming question for many college campuses is whether and how to open campuses next fall – meaning students are attending classes in person and perhaps living on campus as well. We know that coursework can be done online, but some students still prefer the in-person aspect of academia or want a college experience with friends. These realities ultimately matter for enrollment, and schools will weigh the pros and cons differently.

Some schools such as University of Alabama, University of North Carolina, Baylor University, Old Dominion University and even Harvard University are planning to return to campus in the fall. Others are not so quick to follow. Indiana University said that in-person teaching is “unlikely.”

And still others, in hopes of encouraging enrollment from students who want the in-person college experience, are less certain at this point, telling students they “plan to” or “intend to” open up campus next fall.

This means reopening will be a patchwork of decisions across the nation that will give us plenty of test cases from which to learn – what the financial impacts are, if colleges are sued for reopening too soon, and if students tend to choose online or community options regardless of whatever decisions their former or potential school makes. More importantly, colleges will have to decide how to approach reopening if they do so.

What restrictions need to be in place as campuses do open?

The question of what campus life will be like even if colleges choose to open up again is one that may come with even more variables.

How will colleges approach social distancing in classrooms or dormitories or athletic venues? How will they approach the wearing of masks, temperature checks, contact tracing? How will they enforce these measures and to what lengths? And how might student demand for increased flexibility or technological options carry over?

Some states have already recommended guidelines for restrictions in order to reopen college campuses. In addition to physical distancing and testing, universities would be wise to create, articulate and execute (if needed) a plan for parents and students to protect student safety if another wave of the virus should hit during the fall or beyond. How well colleges fare in the long run is likely tied to such contingency plans.

How do colleges recruit students who are more unsure than ever about college?

Current and prospective students are making choices that impact colleges financially. In response, colleges are trying to attract students to their schools.

Universities are using unprecedented outreach to recruit students, offering lower college costs, working through their waitlists earlier, and delaying admissions decision dates in order to fill the spots at their schools with paying students.

It’s to be seen whether these efforts can counteract the reality that students are considering options besides enrollment next fall that they hadn’t before: delaying classes until they can have face-to-face interaction with faculty or pursuing a gap year until life gets back to normal.

Some colleges are simply closing their doors for good. The shuttering of universities has been predicted by some scholars for a while now due to changes to society, technological advances and flexibility in employment. But now, the individual choices being made in response to the coronavirus have accelerated this process.

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