Looking ahead to fall 2020

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:

Bryan_3 COVID scenarios_WSJ

…as well as the 15 from Eddie Maloney and Joshua Kim:

15 Fall Scenarios Graphic

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:

IHE private college enrollments 2020 June 8

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:

campuses planning on f2f 2020 June 7_Chronicle

So how to do it?  One way might involve suspending some key student activities.  Brown University, still hoping to open up, is also cutting back some athletics.

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.

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

There seems to be ongoing demand from (some) colleges and universities for immunization – not against COVID-19, but against lawsuits from people unhappy with their response to the pandemic.

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?

(thanks to Madeleine St. Amour for her relentless coverage)

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11 Responses to Looking ahead to fall 2020

  1. Khalil Yazdi says:

    Appreciate the analysis Bryan. One dimension of the challenge facing public institutions in particular is the expected reduction in state funding and high likelihood that international student enrollments will decline due to travel restrictions. The “good news” is that state funding has been declining for some time so “more of the same.” I am hearing numbers like “30% budget cuts.” All to say, the collateral impact of the pandemic may be harder to recover from than the pandemic itself. Combine that with layoffs and program consolidations, I think the path “back to normal” is complicated at best. Something in-between is most likely in the near term, a “new normal” long-term.

  2. Chris Johnson says:

    Great overview Bryan. I am wondering if recent announcements will cause schools to adjust their plans (again!) in a shift more towards the “back to normal” side of the spectrum.
    For example the CDC saying now that surface spread is not as concerning a initially thought, and the WHO saying now that asymptomatic people spreading the virus would be actually quite rare (which makes sense given it spread via cough and if you don’t have symptoms i.e. a cough then it would be unlikely to spread it). It would seem that there is some alleviation since these were some of the major concerns at the front end of the outbreak.



  3. Glen S McGhee says:

    According to one study, the Cyclical Enrollment boost is no longer true.

    At least this study says so.

    Testing the limits of the price elasticity of potential students at colleges and universities: has the increased direct cost to the student begun to drive down higher education enrollment? Mark Fincher and Stephen Katsinas

    Higher education enrollment has long been known to rise and fall counter to the current economic situation. This counter-cyclical enrollment response represents an economic principle where a price-elastic consumer is more likely make a consumption choice when another valuable use of resources is not available. Higher unemployment has historically led to increased enrollment as fewer prospective students have had attractive employment opportunities as an alternative use of the resource of time. This consumer decision was possible students generally had the ability to pay the cost. This trend has now **ended** as enrollment is no longer rising with increased unemployment. This indicates that ability of many students to pay has now been exceeded by the cost of tuition and other fees.

  4. Glen S McGhee says:

    I appreciate the graphic of alt-15. The question I had was, WHO is paying for all this? None of this is free — unless faculty and admins implementing it are all doing it for free. Even then, what is the usual budget rate of each of these options? Who is doing them? Thanks!

    I was appalled that 67% of the surveillanced are pinning their hopes on face-to-mask instruction. I know that the Florida University System has been working diligently for over a decade (maybe two decades) to develop online capacity. I find it shocking that two-thirds (unless I’m reading this wrong) have done nothing. They simply won’t have a presence, post-Covid.

    • Keil Dumsch says:

      Following my dictum that if something’s stupid, it comes from Harvard, we have this.


      Like all of these recent “future of higher ed pieces” it suffers from the following:

      1. Underestimating the economic fallout from the virus. I think it’s just getting started, and much worse is coming our way
      2. Not acknowledging the effect of an online or even hybrid model on the sustainability of colleges, surrounding communities, and related industries. The entire economic model of higher ed is dependent on high brick-and-mortar enrollments
      3. Not addressing the underlying structural problems of higher ed (K-12 as a preparatory (read: waste of time) warm-up act, the scattered and aimless curriculum, grades, diplomas, the lack of direct and specific job skills, the summers off, and much more)
      4. Education means the classroom, and the classroom means education, and online means putting the classroom on the internet
      5. Overstating the importance of the “college experience” (parties, networking, dorms, leafy campuses) and not recognizing that it can and should be handled elsewhere
      5. Not addressing the elephant in the room, credentialing, and what happens when colleges lose control of that

      • Glen S McGhee says:

        The Harvard Business School article — and especially the comments — made me nauseous. It is not easy to fathom such institutional blindness. The past persists until a radical exogenous shock. But — didn’t we just have an exogenous shock? HBR needs to wake up.

      • Glen S McGhee says:

        Number 5 is the most futuristic, I think, because it premises the institutional basis for higher-ed’s credentialing monopolies. Without this monopoly, the higher education sector would completely lose its legitimacy and collapse.
        Covid is a radical exogenous shock that is attacking the institutional structure, causing a college meltdown, or even a partial college meltdown. As economic losses and the massive job losses from Covid pile up around the world, they will be breaking apart the underlying credential-jobs link — because you have to have jobs that credentials feed into for the whole system to function.
        Shut down the end point for the whole credential pipeline, and you will shut down the pipeline.
        The exception to this would be the elite and super-elite schools, because even if the production pipeline is shut down, a tiny trickle the size of a leak in the pipeline will always be sucked up by top-level employers (I find it difficult to imagine no jobs in a post-Covid world; even if we are stuck with 50 or 60 percent unemployment for a decade or more, that still leaves hiring for the select few.)
        So, as stratification pressures reach hyperbaric levels, admissions will continue to attract corrupt practices — that’s the value threshold: admissions. Everything else is gravy.

        • Keil Dumsch says:

          Glen, you’re right on the money. The higher ed industrial complex is The Beast That Must Be Fed. The virus is going to shut off its food supply. A dwindling number of jobs, so people won’t have the money. They need money, so they more people will skip all, most, or some of college and get themselves into the job world. Even the six-figure salary-earning crowd will be impacted, and these are the people who pay full freight for college. Donations to colleges will take a beating. The “oh no problem, we’ll just put college online” crowd is not recognizing that online is not an economic model that really keeps the doors open for brick-and-mortar schools. Once credentialing gets removed in a major way then it’s game over. It’s hard to see how this can end well for higher ed.

  5. I’m a college student parent as well as a professor, so I’m privy to some of the conversations parents are having about online learning. I think it is hard to overstate the importance of communicating effectively, early and often with stakeholders (students, families, governments) about the ways that learning actually happens, as many seem to believe that if it doesn’t involve synchronous speaking and/or demonstration, it doesn’t count.

    I also worry a lot about the effects of new modes on the anxiety generation. The changing structures necessitated by online and hybrid options seemed to be a real threat to learning because of the challenge of knowing what to do and how and when to do it. That was my big takeaway from the spring: I need to provide consistency, repetition and space for sharing/alleviating concerns.

  6. Glen S McGhee says:

    Glad that we are talking about “the importance of communicating .. about the ways that learning actually happens” since not all learning occurs in a classroom, even a virtual one. This raises the question, WHAT are we learning? Just something to think about because it draws into view our foundational assumptions.

    And it is not just the sudden shift to online delivery that’s creating a panic — it’s the willful demolishing of education standards by US Secretary DeVos and Under-secretary Jones in their revisions of 34 CFR 602 standards (accreditation standards), and the specific waiving of online standards due to the virus, and diluting dual enrollment standards. Accountability, so important in the past, is now just a thing of the past.

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