What Will Happen on College Campuses in the Fall?

What will happen on college campuses in the fall? It’s a big question for families, students and the schools themselves. A lot of what happens depends on factors outside the control of individual schools: will there be more testing? Contact tracing? Enough physical space for distancing? Will the coronavirus have a second wave? Will any given state allow campuses to reopen? For all of these questions, it’s really too early to know the answers. But one thing is clear: Life, and learning for the nation’s 20 million students in higher education, will be different.

So why are so many colleges announcing they will be back on campus in the fall? In many cases, it’s because they’re still trying to woo students. A survey of college presidents found their most pressing concern right now is summer and fall enrollment. Even elite schools, typically more stable when it comes to enrollment, have reportedly been tapping their waitlists.

In the midst of all this uncertainty, it’s worth looking at some of the ideas out there. With the help of Joshua Kim and Edward J. Maloney, professors and authors of the book Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, here are some potential scenarios for reopening colleges and universities:

1. All virtual. Perhaps the most obvious option for college campuses in the fall is to continue doing what they’ve been doing this spring. Colleges have signaled that they’re planning for this option — even if it’s a last resort. California State University, Fullerton, was one of the first to announce publicly it was planning for a fall semester online. With virtual classes, students can remain at home, although some colleges are exploring bringing them back to campus, where they could use the school’s Wi-Fi to take online classes.

2. Delayed start. A delay in the semester would allow a school to wait it out until it was safer to reopen. One option is to push back a month or two, starting in October or November. Another idea is to push a normal start to January. In that case, the spring semester would become the fall semester, and potentially students could stay on campus through next summer to make up the spring semester. Boston University floated a version of this January start date when it announced a number of plans it was exploring. One downside to a late start is what students will do in the meantime, especially those who don’t have financial stability and rely on campus or the university to be a safe and stable home.

3. Some online, some face-to-face. This would be a hybrid model, with a combination of virtual and in-person classes. It may be a good choice for college campuses that don’t have enough classrooms to allow adjusting face-to-face teaching to the requirements of social distancing. Of course, shifting larger classes online may not be enough, by itself, to alleviate the health concerns of having students on campus. Early research from Cornell University found that eliminating very large classes still left the small world network of the campus intact.

4. Shortened blocks. In block scheduling, students take just one course at a time for a shorter duration, typically three or four weeks. Colorado College, a liberal arts school south of Denver, has been using this model for 50 years. The college adopted this style of classes because “it allows [students] to take a deep dive and really focus in unique ways on the single subject,” says Alan Townsend, the provost there. In a typical year, the school offers eight blocks. In addition to its intensity, block scheduling is attractive right now because it allows flexibility. Colleges that use it have the opportunity to change the way classes look every three weeks — since there are multiple start and stop points. (With a semester, you have only a single start and then, often 16 weeks later, an end.) The school is also entertaining the idea of sending faculty abroad to teach a block for international students who might not be able to enter the U.S, or adding summer blocks to give students even more opportunities to take classes.

5. Only some on campus. Some colleges have suggested bringing only freshmen back to campus and having upperclassmen either delay their start, or be online and remote. The idea centers on research that shows just how important a student’s first year of college is as a predictor of graduation. Adapting to campus can be a challenge, so this would allow first-year students to get comfortable and have extra support on campus. Since upperclassmen are already familiar with how campus and classes work, the theory goes, they can more easily adapt to an online environment. Other versions of this approach would have students who have housing needs come back to campus first, and then, over time, phase in other groups of students.

6. On campus, with some changes. Social distancing, improved testing and contact tracing could college campuses to reopen. To follow social distancing, professors are measuring their classrooms, calculating how many students could fit in the space if they were 6 feet apart. Deans are planning out how students could enter and exit the classrooms safely. But it’s not just the classrooms that pose a challenge. For residential colleges, it’s the dorms. Some ideas include housing students in offices that aren’t being used, local hotel rooms or off-campus housing. Institutions are also reimagining campus events, like freshman orientation, since it’s unlikely hundreds of students will be in a packed auditorium.

To check the plans of a specific college, click here. This list is being updated regularly, so you should check back frequently for updates. 

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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