Looking ahead to higher ed in fall 2021: struggling towards normalcy

Earlier this week my family took in a videoconference hosted by the University of Vermont, where Owain is a history major. The UVM team was very clear on one point: the return of a pre-COVID educational setting by fall 2021.  Students will be required to be on campus in Burlington.  There will be no remote classes, no online education.

This brought home to me on a personal level that at least some of American* higher education anticipates a return to normalcy this fall semester.  I’ve been looking into this, and wanted to share some forecasting notes today.

Campuses planning on an entirely in-person fall experience are apparently betting that COVID-19 vaccines will triumph over the summer in what I’ve called “the race between vaccines and variants.”  This lines up with the Biden administration’s campaign for enough people to have gotten shots that July 4th will be celebrated without masks.

The data point in that direction, so far. Vaccinations are getting into people, despite many logistical problems:

coronavirus vaccines by nation -US-2021 March 18_91-divOC

Partly as a result, infections are declining:

coronavirus infections by nation-US_2021 March 19-91-DIVOC

One caveat: while cases plummeted from mid-January, that curve took a hit in March and now seems to have either slowed down or hit a plateau. I hope the current slew of idiocy openings don’t breed a new spike.

At some point the infection situation will drop below pandemic levels.  I don’t see any move to eradicate COVID. Instead, we seem to be headed to living with it, much as we live with other infectious diseases (flu, AIDS, etc.), through a mix of public health strategies, a lack of media coverage, and acceptance of certain amounts of injury and death.

So if all goes according to plan, what might a post-pandemic fall semester look like on college and university campuses?

1: The more likely academic trends and developments

These are trends, topics, and problems whose outcomes seem relatively predetermined or constrained.  Relatively.

Post-traumatic communities: students, faculty, and staff setting foot on campus in August and September will have lived through one and one-half years of national trauma.  Some members of the academic world will have experienced illness, long-haul tissue damage, or economic hardship, or a mixture of these. Additionally, people will have seen others deal with all of these, plus witnessing deaths of family members, plus realizing that the pandemic slaughtered more than 600,000 people.

As a result campus communities will likely have to cope with trauma and its aftereffects.  Colleges and universities have the opportunity to help them recover by providing access to care. Administrations may be pressured to do more.

Depressed financials: while many institutions were badly hit financially over the past year, losses were not as great as I and others forecast, thanks mostly to several federal aid packages from both political parties.  Overall, state governments seem to be trying to spend a bit more on public institutions, albeit with exceptions, naturally. Yet hits did occur and enrollment did drop in 2020-2021, hence the loss off 650,000+ academic jobs.

Depending on their individual situations, a number of colleges and universities will struggle to balance the books and pay bills. This may drive more program cuts, campus mergers, and closures.

Online meetings: from office hours to committee meetings, presentations, and consultations, 2020 taught many academics that these could be done decently – or better, in many ways! – through video. We could see a quiet maintenance of these virtual habits even as people physically gather.

Loss of learning: to some very hard to quantify degree students may have fallen behind in learning during the pandemic. Traditional-age undergraduates starting their first post-secondary years this fall may have had a weaker senior high school year than most. Continuing students may have missed curricular items that campuses could not offer virtually, such as those requiring in-person, hands-on practice.  Some faculty may feel that their students didn’t learn at a pre-COVID level during the past year.

As a result campuses have several options. They may devote resources to enhancing learning in 2021-2022, such as through paracurricular centers (teaching and learning, writing, numeracy, etc). Faculty may lower expectations to a degree during fall classes.  Remedial classes might be offered as well.

COVID curriculum: I coined this term nearly a year ago to refer to an increase in student demand for pandemic-related classes and degrees, most notably the full range of health care topics.  NPR agrees, but prefers their “Fauci effect” nickname.  Either way, there are signs that this increased demand is occurring (one example).  The pandemic’s enormous catastrophe may push that enrollment forward in fall 2021.  The flipside of this forecast is that other fields will lose out, especially if total enrollment remains lower (but see below).

Athletics: clearly American higher ed will do absolutely anything to keep playing college sports, including spending huge amounts of money and/or risking COVID spread. If I’m right about this, then we should see a massive push for athletics to go full tilt in fall, especially the high profile and occasionally money-making sports of football and basketball.

2: Open questions

These are trends and topics whose expressions in fall term are harder to pin down and have a greater range of possibility.

Online and hybrid classes: how many students will demand online classes or hybrid access to in-person ones?  Depending on how successful the 2021 public health campaign is, there may be a number of students who prefer online learning because of convenience (balancing study with work and family) or not being convinced of a campus’ safety measures.

Which campuses will insist on entirely in-person education, and which offer online and/or hybrid and/or HyFlex options?  How open will departments and other units be to remote work?

Toggle terms: depending on how the virus plays out this fall, some campuses may decide to throw the switch and order students to shelter in place if infections spike.  Other campuses may be ordered or pressured to do so by local or state health authorities.  It’s hard to anticipate numbers on this score, given so many viral variables: mutations, different local conditions, students partaking in superspreader events, etc.

Enrollment: will it continue ticking down as it has done every semester since 2012? If the Biden administration’s Department of Education follows the Obama team’s anti-for-profit strategy, we could see that sector lose students – and those are then lost to the rest of higher ed, typically. Some would-be students might not feel they can risk in-person education. Or will there be some bounceback after fall 2020 and spring 2021’s steeper drops, as people sign up for classes without fear of infection?

Openings coverCommitment to improving teaching: one of the Georgetown Opening‘s findings was that much of higher education determined to improve teaching during the pandemic semesters.  This was partly to address complaints of low-quality online teaching and partly to make in-person education work despite anti-COVID measures.

Will this commitment extend to fall 2021? It might not. Faculty switching from online to in-person teaching may feel more confident and ask for less support. The absence of plexiglas and masks may similarly restore instructors’ sense of their quality, and perhaps senior administration will share that sentiment.  Additionally, campuses might have a hard time allocating funds to instructional designers, faculty professional development, and paracurricular centers given so many other crying needs from 2020-2021.

On the other hand, how many instructors returning to physical classrooms will find themselves exploring new techniques and approaches? Lessons learned from online teaching can often inform face-to-face instruction. A desire for equity may also drive some to change their pedagogy or decolonize their curricula. We could, in other words, see a persistent drive to improve education once the pandemic situation eases.

Efforts to address racial inequalities: as with improving educational quality, academia rededicated itself in 2020 to grappling with racism.  How might that play out in fall 2021?  Again, our Openings research found many scholars unsure of momentum here. Will the Biden administration encourage more racial justice work, or will the absence of the antipathetic Trump take away some energy for such efforts? Will structural changes get under weigh and support continued work, or will 2020 become a flash in the historical pan, a brief moment of racial rethinking that faded too quickly?

Women and research: non-COVID-related research suffered during the pandemic as scarce resources were prioritized and as coping with the disaster meant losing research time in favor of caring and recovery.  Female scholars suffered this more strongly than did males, since to the former fell the lion’s share of family and home-based care work.  If we experience a return to normalcy in fall 2020, will colleges and universities not only devote resources to recovering research progress, but also target women for more support?

Socialization: a popular thought is that students socializing online lose the opportunity to learn how to interact with people in person.  To the extent that this is true, the pandemic semesters represent a loss in social learning, especially for traditional-age undergraduates. How will campuses respond?  They could host expanded residential life programs aimed at catching up for lost time. Campus mental health capacity could add “learning how to interact better with humans offline” to their already crowded service agenda. Faculty may decide to increase small group and team work exercises.

Campus design: how will a college or university’s built environment change by fall 2021?    Months ago I imagined transformed architectural spaces under the assumption that the pandemic lasted three years or more:

Architecture, cities, and the overall human-built environment have changed somewhat by 2023.   Insofar as renovations and new construction occurs, buildings have bigger openings to the outside through wider windows and doors, more galleries and porches, all aimed at facilitating social distancing or externally circulating air.  Inside buildings there are larger hallways and fewer, yet larger, rooms.  Rooftops are more widely used.  Fast food restaurants have more drive-throughs and fewer dining rooms – they are, in effect, for pickup only.

Yet fall term 2021 proceeds with just one and one-half COVID years.  That’s not a lot of time for major alterations to buildings and the construction of new ones. If the pandemic ceases by autumn, to what extent will a campus look different? Will we see those wider doors and windows, those enlarged rooms, or will the 2019 physical plant simply continue?

Job placement: will academia’s methods for pointing students towards employment change in fall 2021? How will changes to the labor market (higher unemployment, certain industrial sectors sapped, others booming) elicit academic responses? Groups like The Taskforce on Higher Education and Opportunity represent some innovation in career support. I am not sure how widespread such rethinking and transformation will be.

The Greek system: fraternities and sororities played a prominent role in spreading COVID in academic communities and surrounding areas (for example) (another example) (another example) (example) (example) (example) (example) (example) (example).  Will campuses that allow Greek systems to function rethink that stance or come up with new policies?

I posed this question in August, and that post has a more substantial argument than what I’m making here. Events haven’t invalidated it. On the one hand, we can see that some fraternities and sororities took steps that clearly worsened the pandemic. On the other, the Greek system is buttressed by hefty amounts of money, not to mention serious support across and adjacent to academia.  Additionally, I suspect many academics who might dislike those houses have resigned themselves to their continuation. Will COVID alter that picture?

Assessing and administering students: Wesson Radomsky (a splendid Georgetown LDT student) asks us to think about some aspects of instruction:

Will faculty members decide to grade like it’s 2019, or maintain pandemic modes of assessment and administration?  What will departments and chief academic officers prefer?

Policing the campus perimeter: Robert McGuire wonders how campuses will police who’s allows on site:

If campuses insist on proof of vaccination, what will they require?  Many vaccination services issue stamped or stickered cards; is that the badge of entry?  Or will the United States stand up a vaccination passport scheme in time for fall residence hall move-in? Some could maintain the not-very-useful temperature check instead.  And what should campuses do about students – and staff, and faculty – who are not vaccinated yet see themselves as having a rightful place on the grounds?

Study abroad: how might these programs change?  For example, will certain destination countries block or otherwise make entrance difficult for American students, given how badly this nation bungled COVID?) and length of stay.  Or campuses could select hosting areas depending on how they are at present handling the virus.

Stepping back a bit from this more detailed themes and issues, will colleges and universities continue to push hard on innovation overall as they did in 2020, or will they fall back?  How many academics will greet an in-person fall term with a sigh of nostalgic relief and dust off fall 2019’s playbook?  How many will see fall 2021 as an opening to new possibilities?

*I’m focusing on American higher ed in this post for reasons of time.  I need to pry loose more time to cover other nations on this topic.

(thanks to Owain Alexander, Phil Long for ideas)

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10 Responses to Looking ahead to higher ed in fall 2021: struggling towards normalcy

  1. Roger Schonfeld says:

    I hope you’ll look comparatively at the higher education issues in other countries that are doing as well as we are with vaccinations, such as the UK and Israel. I think we are likely to see many other countries not nearly as able to reopen their higher education systems for traditional instruction in the fall. In that case, what impacts if any might we expect on international student flows?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      For other nations, I simply need more time and/or connections with researchers already doing this work.

      International student flows: good, good question. I’m not sure how depressed they will be in fall 2021.

  2. Lisa aka Edith says:

    Interesting ideas but I think premature. We don’t actually know what will occur – viruses by their very nature are not always predictable – they mutate, they spread – who knows what will happen over the summer? How do we know we will successfully vaccinate enough people to achieve the elusive herd immunity? How do we know another coronavirus will not appear by next fall and we will have to do the whole thing over again?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Lisa aka Edith, I agree. The pandemic has the ability to confound so many of our plans.

      This post was based on the assumption that fall will be post-pandemic. This seems to be a model many colleges and universities are following.

      Now, if that assumption proves false –> that’s a different post.

  3. Ted says:

    Athletics: clearly American higher ed will do absolutely anything to keep playing college sports, including spending huge amounts of money and/or risking COVID spread. If I’m right about this, then we should see a massive push for athletics to go full tilt in fall, especially the high profile and occasionally money-making sports of football and basketball.

    Both the Alabama Community College System and the University of Alabama System have announced that they will return to normal, in-person operations in the fall without remote instruction. In particular, the University of Alabama has announced that it will allow the full 101,000+ capacity at Bryant-Denny stadium. Both systems also made a push to increase in-person instruction this semester.
    Given Alabama politics, I don’t see either system toggling unless things get really (I’m not sure that there’s much short of Nick Saban dying of COVID that would do it).
    I think Lisa aka Edith makes a good point about the unpredictability of the virus, and I agree that it’s premature to make such decisions (like the decision by Alabama’s governor to end the mask mandate on April 9), but the political reality of Alabama is that the leadership of the state is extremely far-right (see,
    e.g., the decision of insurrectionist representative Mo Brooks to announce his senate campaign last week with special guest Stephen Miller). I’d love to be proven wrong, but I think Alabama’s leadership has decided that the pandemic is over, and further steps to control it are off the table.
    I hope more sanity prevails elsewhere.

  4. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Looking towards “normalcy” with a decade straight of declining US enrollment, impending austerity at the state and local levels, two enrollment cliffs ahead (2016, 2038) and downturns in between, growing inequality for a half century, massive underemployment among the educated underclass, a student debt crisis that isn’t being addressed? #collegemeltdown

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Based on conversations I’ve had with deans, presidents, trustees, and legislators?

      Many of them (outside the tiny group of elites) saw themselves in trouble before COVID. COVID just added to their woes, and they want to get past it so they can tackle the rest. For them 2019 was normal.

      For some, they really didn’t grasp the forces you and I have been discussing. Time and again I’ve found academic leaders – along with faculty and staff – unaware of those drivers.

  5. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    Yale Professor AMY WRZESNIEWSKI has some interesting points to make about the online-pivot in the workplace — that I believe also apply to post-Covid education and learning.

    Trust building and communication problems (“Things that became 20 emails could have taken two minutes on the phone”), the difficulty of positioning leaders in a way that benefits the entire team (i.e., teachers are becoming irrelevant, sidelined by the focus on technology), the distinction between synchronous and asynchronous, all these are tremendous downsides.

    “One thing we observed was that many people who worked from home had made deliberate choices to do that, and not to seek further promotion. Another observation was that the work-from-home group were ascribed lower status by the on-site group. Also, the on-site group had a greater opportunity for trust-building.”

    Frankly, this is where the classical understanding of education — as ēdūcō [drawing out, developing; from ē- (“from, out of”) and dūcō (“I lead, I conduct”)] makes post-Covid education highly problematic.
    Simply put, Plato’s Socrates always understood that learning involved (Platonic) “eros” in the sense of a deep connection between the “psyche” (soul) of the teacher and the “psyche” (soul) of the student — one soul speaks to the other soul. In fact, their souls speak to each other. (This is the classical reason educators would give for why great teachers are learning from their students as much as their students learn from them!)

    What WRZESNIEWSKI describes is the situation(s) where all this is less likely to happen. “Engaging” is less likely to happen, assuming that it happens at all.

    This perspective (and its sociological analog, solidarity) is entirely missing from discussions of the “loss of learning” and “in-person, hands-on” learning. The problems go far beyond Zoom-fatigue and teacher exhaustion.

    The transfer of knowledge between generations is, I am afraid, breaking down. “Some faculty may feel that their students didn’t learn at a pre-COVID level during the past year.” But it is so much more than this. SO much more!

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