What will college campuses look like in the Fall of 2020?

By Kathy Laberge, College Admission Coach

That is an excellent question, and one that is prominent in the minds of high school seniors, current college students, administrators, and faculty. One reputable higher ed survey indicates 10% of high school students no longer plan to attend a four-year university. This strikes fear in the heart of colleges and universities. Their business is education, and be assured, higher education is indeed a business.

Many schools insist they will be open in the fall, even if only for distance instruction. They are, understandably, not making firm announcements about residential opening just yet, but are busy planning for a variety of scenarios ranging from fully closed campuses to a return to life as usual. Asking for full tuition while not providing full value is obviously unattractive to parents and students. Conducting classes is required for economic survival and closed campuses mean an abrupt decline in income when classes, athletics, performances, and facility rentals no longer exist. The infamous packed lecture halls and crammed residence hall triples are not likely to happen this year, but colleges want and need their students to return.

Interactions between faculty and students cannot be replaced by virtual classrooms. Lack of physical proximity widens the gap between faculty and student. Remote instruction allows students to multitask, chat, web surf, and tune out if material is uninteresting. Conducting instruction off campus will significantly hamper the phenomenon known as the college experience. Yet proximity to fellow students is suddenly unsafe. Colleges are scrambling to compile the best solutions.  As they design a return to an open campus, administrators are considering that young adults generally do not suffer a severe impact of COVID-19. Campuses know they need to have testing and tracing measures in place.  Mass communications systems that enable instant community wide notifications already exist. Mask wearing can be enforced, handwashing can be strongly encouraged. Travel restrictions on faculty and students and staff can be put in place. The health gamble is a different story for faculty and other adults who interact with students; they are at a much higher risk. Yet data minded decision makers may choose to mitigate that risk with more brain than heart.

Creative potential options being discussed on campuses throughout the country include:

• The fall semester may begin with distance learning and a plan to transition into residential instruction can be in place. It is far simpler for students and faculty to adjust from remote to live than it is to accommodate an unexpected campus exodus.

• Fall start dates may be delayed to October, November, or even January. Conducting spring semester 2021 during the summer months is a possibility, and it would be helpful in keeping students on track for graduation within the traditional four-year course of study.

• Hybrid learning is another option. Creating physical distance between students in classrooms is not terribly challenging. Instruction content for large lecture classes could be delivered both online and in smaller groups. Lecture halls filled with hundreds of students are not essentially conducive to interaction so there would be decreased impact in this scenario assuming faculty access remains in place.

• Shorter class terms may be successful, and they are already in place at a number of institutions. A semester of sixteen weeks may become a quartet of four-week terms. This academic calendar allows a deep dive into a subject. Study is intensive but flexible. Multiple beginning and end dates naturally lend themselves to interruptions and decreases the impact of an abrupt campus closure

• Classes may be presented in a more seminar style setting with fewer students per section and substantial physical free space around each student.

• Campus returns may be staggered with freshmen arriving first and upperclassmen arriving later as they, presumably, can jump right back into learning. First year success is a predictor of graduation and this option allows freshmen to adapt to campus life with substantial support.

College offers far more than instruction. Students spend precious few hours in classrooms and far more time interacting in collaborative study or recreation. Closed campuses restrict research opportunities and forbid study abroad programs. Many students view the social component of college as an irreplaceable and indelible part of campus experience. Campus traditions are intrinsic to the college experience. Student activities encourage interaction between likeminded peers. They are an opportunity to learn concurrently with students who share interests and passions, and they are an important component in campus life.

If a substantial number of high school graduates of 2020 choose to take a gap year, then colleges will be forced to handle essentially two incoming freshman classes. Colleges have already committed to the students who were initially to have arrived in August of 2020. We believe this population crunch indicates a more competitive admission process for the Class of 2021.

Happily, colleges and universities are intrinsically adept at nimble thinking. This is the essence of what they represent! And under current conditions they are strongly motivated to adapt and create innovative solutions.  It may look different than years past, but we are confident campuses will be accessible and students will thrive.