We’re now one week into June. In higher education this means two unequal things: first, summer classes are under way, like mine. Second, fall term planning is proceeding, which is a much larger affair. Since we’re in the year of the
Murder Hornets EbolaCOVID-19 pandemic, that work is much more intense. The situation is also incredibly fluid.
Let me combine some current developments with a look ahead to create glimpses of what autumn 2020 might look like in colleges and universities. Keep in mind my three scenarios:
…as well as the 15 from Eddie Maloney and Joshua Kim:
Overall, there’s uncertainty over the financial picture. More colleges are offering tuition breaks, obviously to win more enrollment from people reeling from a terrible economic/medical shock. In fact, many campuses are anticipating an enrollment decline this fall, like Detroit area community colleges. Various commentators in and outside of academia argue that tuition is too high for online teaching.
College towns and other areas that depend on campuses for business are expecting a significant economic hit this fall. Towns around campuses that offer big sports teams are worried about an economic blow if students – and games – don’t return in numbers.
On the other hand, enrollment could tick upwards, according to Moody’s, for the traditional reason: people seeking to improve their labor market standing when unemployment is high. Interestingly, Moody’s also thinks that even if student numbers rise, revenue will decline. I can’t see the report, but IHE account mentions some important details: possibility of a mid-term new infection surge; hits to other income streams; families down-shifting away from more costly campuses as they grapple with their own financial stresses.
Inside Higher Ed looked into small, private college enrollment data and found a mixed picture, as of June 1:
POST-COVID CAMPUS What about the institutions hoping to resume in-person education this fall? Two-thirds are preparing for this, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s running survey:
Another is to reorganize campus spaces. I’ve heard from several professors and administrators that they are considering putting up tents to house outdoor classes, where students and faculty members could be safely separated. This obviously makes more sense in warmer climates, unlike, say, New England or the upper Midwest. Additionally, discussion during a Senate hearing last week saw the idea of repurposing other campus spaces for instruction, including staff and faculty offices unused by those working remotely.
Interesting idea: repurposing faculty + staff spaces for classrooms, when said faculty + staff are working remotely.
— Bryan Alexander (@BryanAlexander) June 4, 2020
Otherwise opening up for in-person education entails extensive medical testing and contact tracing, both of which run the possibilities of being expensive and not working effectively. (This Chronicle article gives a good overview.) Research universities like Brown or Michigan sometimes have such capacities in-house, as when they maintain their own hospitals. Some campuses lack that capacity, and that’s why some of those are partnering with local, independent medical organizations.
Any campus may find the need to expand digital surveillance of students. As I’ve said before, holding in-person campus experience this fall will likely involve a heavy layer of medical supervision and testing, which might not go over well. Back to that Chronicle piece:
There is evidence that relying on phone-tracking devices is not popular with Americans, even during a pandemic. Surveys conducted since March by Beth Redbird, an assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University, show that only 15 percent of Americans agree that the government should use GPS monitoring to track people who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Support is higher among whites than it is among blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans, she said.
The New York Times hosted an interesting discussion about how to return to in-person education, and I recommend reading the whole thing. In addition to what I’ve noted so far, discussants touched on:
- the possibility of setting up students into groups for testing and potential containment
- implicit tensions with unionized workers – not faculty members, but low income cleaners and cooks
- limits on testing: number of kits, how to implement
- problems reconfiguring sit-down dining for safe delivery or pickup
On the graduate school front, several research universities are cutting back on enrolling new graduate students. The explicit goal here is to focus resources on supporting currently enrolled students.
Dalton Conley, Henry Putnam University Professor of Sociology at Princeton and director of graduate studies in the department [:”W]e’d rather focus on taking care of students we’ve already brought into the Princeton community rather than the theoretical idea of students who potentially might come.”
This can play out through some interesting micropolitics:
Iddo Tavory, associate professor of sociology at NYU and the program’s director of graduate studies, said his department “actually considered completely canceling a cohort, but we felt that we have to balance our commitment to students with our commitment to actually allowing people to pursue Ph.D.s.”
The department also floated the idea of offering graduate students additional, need-based funding. Tavory said students generally opposed this notion, arguing that it could pit them against each other and that need may be hard to quantify. And so the department agreed on what he called a “hybrid model” of reduced admissions for three years.
COVID FALL In contrast, some campuses and programs are planning on being online this fall. Harvard announced six of its grad programs would be online. Why might this matter? First, American higher ed has long had a bad case of Harvard envy or Harvard centrism. We tend to pay outsized attention to this one campus out of 4400 or so. Second, these are graduate schools, which are often easier to shift online.
At the same time, “Canadian [universities] for the most part seem to be opting for an online semester for the latter half of 2020,” according to Alex Usher.
Otherwise, signs are more speculative. Some liberal arts campuses have launched online curricula regarding COVID-19. The University of Mary Washington is running an online class on the pandemic this month. Whitman College made its spring COVID classes publicly available now. This might be steps towards online classes for the fall or spring 2021.
TOGGLE TERM As per usual over the past two months, few institutions have made open statements about following this path.
An Emory University professor called for changing up the academic year in a way that allows faculty and students to chose which terms they want to be online versus in person. “Teaching in the fall semester would be completely, or mainly, online, with in-person instruction returning in the spring and summer semesters.” As a result,
This decision would dramatically thin out the population on campuses in the fall and would buy institutions time to prepare for a return to residential learning in the spring: retrofitting buildings, implementing new public health technologies, stockpiling testing kits and other supplies, developing policies for social distancing, and training faculty and staff members on how to implement them.
Yet Toggle remains the plan that nobody can mention.
That’s what things look like from June 8th, 2020. What else are you seeing, readers?