To Open or Not to Open Come Fall? Colleges Need to Decide

May 15, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem
(photo by Dan McCue)

Over the last few months, the coronavirus crisis has forced colleges and universities across America to close down campuses and teach students entirely online.

Now, the new school year is around the corner, and they face another daunting challenge — how to reopen safely amid the pandemic.

Some schools are erring on the side of caution — California State University, the largest public university system in the nation, announced on Tuesday that it would hold classes almost exclusively online in the Fall. 

Others — like Texas A&M — announced their intention to return to normal as soon as possible, resuming in-person classes and holding football games.

But whether they reopen or not, colleges and universities will be up against significant financial challenges in the COVID-19 era.

Mildred Garcia, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, says university leaders are under immense pressure right now. “They are going through something that we have never seen in our lifetime,” she says.

Keeping campuses closed means losing important revenue streams from student housing, sports programs, dining hall sales, and even parking, Garcia says. Between 2016 and 2018, Texas A&M’s average annual revenue from college football was a whopping $147 million, with $97 million in profit.

On the other hand, Garcia says, resuming in-person classes could become a huge legal and financial liability if someone gets sick on campus. 

To avoid lawsuits, colleges will have to minimize the risk of a coronavirus outbreak by anticipating transmission scenarios of all kinds — in classrooms, dorms, and dining halls. Some colleges are even looking at installing plexiglass windows in administrative offices to protect staff members, Garcia says.

In many ways, virtual learning is a safer bet for colleges, but from a student perspective, it’s not always the most popular option. 

In a recent poll by College Reaction, 65% of respondents said they would attend in-person classes if colleges reopen this Fall, while just 31% said they would only attend virtually. 

Many students feel that online courses don’t offer the same value as in-person classes.

Of the 835 college students surveyed, 78% said they want colleges to reduce tuition by at least 5% if distance learning continues this Fall.

Garcia says that remote learning can be particularly challenging for lower-income students who may be dealing with difficult family situations back home. “Fully online is not for everybody,” says Garcia. “It is not the best for the underserved students.”

Without a quiet place to study, access to a computer, or even access to a reliable internet connection, remote learning can be a nightmare, she says. In the College Reaction poll, 71% of students said they were distracted by things going on at home when distance learning.

Some colleges are taking a more pragmatic approach to reopening by exploring “hybrid” or “blended” learning models that combine in-person classes and online learning. The “hybrid” learning model predates the coronavirus and has been used by some European universities for years.

Higher education experts have also voiced concerns that the coronavirus crisis could result in a decline in international student enrollment. “I think we have to put ourselves in parent’s shoes,” says Garcia. “How comfortable would you feel sending your children to study in the United States at this particular point in time?” 

Additionally, international students may face immigration issues. The pandemic has drastically reduced air travel and closed dozens of U.S. consulates that process visas. In April, the American Council on Education urged the Trump administration to prioritize student visas once consulates re-open in a letter signed by more than 60 higher education organizations.

“Going forward, there is still uncertainty whether U.S. consulates will be open in time to complete interviews and process visa applications for international students seeking to begin their studies for the fall 2020 semester,” the letter said.

International students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $41 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2018-2019 academic year, according to data from the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers.

Garcia says it’s still unclear how severe the drop in enrollment could be for colleges this Fall. “We don’t have those numbers yet,” she says. “But every institution is scenario planning, thinking about what will be their loss of enrollment in the fall.”

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