Liberal arts colleges look to fall 2020

How will American higher education take shape this fall?

(UPDATED August 7)

I’ve been exploring that question since COVID-19 roared out of Hubei province.  I’ve addressed it at a systematic level and by examining several institutions’ strategies.  Today I’d like to focus on one sector of American academia, a small but influential one: the liberal arts world.

I’m going to set aside the definitional question of “what is a liberal arts campus?” for now.  These institutions – typically colleges, although some are styled universities – tend to focus on residential undergraduate education, have a low student:instructor ratio, encourage interdisciplinary study, are small, are usually private, and have a high level of student support.  They also tend to call themselves liberal arts institutions.  That’s enough to get us started.

How are they planning their fall semesters?

Here I’d like to outline some trends I’m seeing across a range of these campus.

tl;dr version – they are the Post-Pandemic Campus, COVID Fall, Toggle Term, Blended Post-Pandemic Campus and COVID Fall, transformed calendar, changed course loads, interdisciplinary, online COVID-19 classes, faculty dissent, and student dissent.

Caveat 1: remember that their size and creativity means liberal arts colleges and universities are capable of rapid development and change.

Caveat 2: I’m not saying these plans are unique to “LACs.”  Ideas circulate across the full institutional ecosystem.

Caveat 3: this post describes a single moment in time, within a very flexible situation.  Some campuses, like Knox College, haven’t committed yet to fall plans.  Much could conceivably change over the next month and a half.

I’ll start with my three scenarios for a fall academy, then move on from there.

The Post-Pandemic Campus Some campuses plan on reopening for in-person education, either for their entire population or most of it, such as Hampshire College, Middlebury College, Lawrence University, and  Colgate University.

One example is St. Olaf College, which will welcome back their community in person.  The school requires students to take a detailed pledge.  Furman University is also inviting students back with a pledge.

Another example can be found in Colby College.  To be sure of community safety, they will offer pandemic testing.  A lot of pandemic testing:

[I]n addition to required face coverings, social distancing, limited visits to campus and travel restrictions for faculty, staff and students, Colby will test people several days before they come back to campus and retest them three times during each of their first and second weeks.

“Every week thereafter we will test them at least twice. We’re going to do 85,000 tests in the first semester alone, which is pretty close to what the entire state has done for over 1.3 million people since the beginning of this pandemic, and we’re going to do that our population of only 3,000 over the fall semester,” [Colby College President David Greene] says.

The cost for that: $10 million, according to one accountRobert Kelchen sees this as “Colby is swooping in to spend millions on testing to woo students.”

In contrast Colorado College will offer, but not mandate, testing.

Rollins College will host students again, but warns them that not all classes will be face to face:

This fall, we will leverage videoconferencing software to engage students both in and out of the classroom. All students will need a videoconference-capable device (e.g., laptop with camera, tablet, smart phone) and some type of headphones or earbuds that include a microphone for classes. This solution will allow both in-person and remote students to actively and equally participate in class with their faculty and—importantly—with each other.

Vassar College welcomes students back to campus, but apparently not to town, at least for a time: “Phase 2: Confirming Community Standards (August 31–September 25)”

Students living in campus housing will be expected to remain on campus during the academic semester. With very limited exceptions, such as medical care, off-campus student travel is not permitted. [emphasis in original; thanks to Bill Owens for the pointer]

Middlebury College student and keen observer of the pandemic Benjy Renton was entertained by one college’s admonition:

COVID fall: In this scenario campuses are wholly online or nearly so.  Few instances appeared in May and June, but they have started cropping up this month, likely driven by the current infection surge.

One example is Pomona College, which announced plans for an online COVID fall term. Its announcement is sober, even elegiac, arguing that the current pandemic is likely to persist and make in-person campus life too risky, especially given infection rates in the immediate vicinity.  Therefore the college aims for this:

Strengthening and refining our remote education

 Taking steps to support students in challenging situations, promote educational equity and reduce financial strains

Preparing the campus for the more realistic possibility of at least some students returning to Pomona for spring semester

The president showcases some examples of appealing online teaching work:

Professor of Environmental Analysis Marc Los Huertos is one of a number of faculty members developing a mix of synchronous and asynchronous resources that will permit students to engage on their own schedules. Professor of Music Genevieve Lee and others in the department are working with ITS to provide their students with microphones, WiFi hubs and additional technologies to improve the audio experience on Zoom. Professor of Physics Janice Hudgings is busy reinventing her Modern Physics laboratory to permit students to develop their own experiments using everyday objects.

Nearby Scripps College, Occidental College, and Soka University are also heading back online, and for similar reasons.  Scripps also hopes to return to in-person in spring 2021.

In Pennsylvania, Dickinson College announced its fall term would be online, as did Lafayette College.  Rhodes College in Tennessee announced the same, hoping for an in-person spring 2021.  Mount Holyoke College moved online in August.

Grinnell College will hold the first half of fall term online.

Toggle Term This scenario posits a campus ready to switch between online and in-person education as the situation calls for it.  As I’ve said previously, few schools are willing to pronounce publicly that they are considering such, but we can find hints when we look carefully.  For example, Hamilton College offers a pointer in  this direction with its advice to students: “We strongly recommend all students minimize the possessions they bring to campus in the fall (we suggest two suitcases and a tote).”

Vassar College published a similar notice:

Please pack light for the Fall 2020 semester. This will facilitate an easy move-in process and swift move-out, if public health conditions require students to leave campus prematurely.

Franklin and Marshall College offers a similar caution with more detail, under an appropriate header:

Closing Campus as Necessary

We aim to be on campus from the beginning of classes on August 26 and on-campus residence halls will close at Thanksgiving (November 20, 2020), and students will work from home for the rest of the fall term. Residence halls will also close at any time that the College decides it must close. Students who decide to return to campus must have an exit plan if they are living in on-campus residence halls. In other words, if the College must quickly close due to an outbreak or for other reasons, we will not house students for any extended period of time (absent temporary isolation/quarantine before departure). As part of your preparations, please consider limiting the number of items you bring to campus. [emphasis in original]

That calls to mind the rapid exfiltration of students off campus in March, and the problem of personal belongings.  (We experienced this in our family, as Owain left the University of Vermont in a hurry, and we had to do a second trip to get his remaining stuff.)

Colgate describes its flexibility and offers a good how to teach remotely site for faculty, but stops short of a full Toggle:

The Task Force on the Reopening of the Colgate Campus, along with the staff of the University’s Emergency Operations Center, is therefore developing a comprehensive series of plans to help mitigate transmission and impacts related to COVID-19. We have built-in flexibility to permit faculty and students to continue remote instruction if desired or needed. Further, the University has prepared for the likelihood of new cases of COVID-19 presenting on the campus by identifying student isolation and quarantine spaces.

(See also “Changed calendar” below)

Blended Post-Pandemic Campus/COVID Fall I’ve mentioned previously that a fourth scenario is appearing, one that blended the wholly open and the entirely online scenarios.  The rhetoric is interesting, emphasizing openness and downplaying the online bit (Mount Holyoke College titles their fall announcement “The Plan to Open the Gates”) (then moved online), but the blend is there once you look into the texts with care.

We can see one such liberal arts blend in Amherst College.  They are currently planning on a semi-open fall semester:

we can adhere to the best public health guidance and offer an excellent educational experience to students who are on and off campus if we bring approximately 1,200-1,250 students to campus in the fall. This represents just over 60 percent of our total enrollment and between 70 and 75 percent of those who indicated interest in returning to campus for their studies.

It’s an interesting mix of students:

we will give priority to all first-year students, all transfer students, all sophomores, any seniors who are scheduled to graduate at the end of the fall semester, and seniors who are returning to campus after spending the fall and/or spring term of the 2019-20 academic year studying abroad. In addition, two categories of students may petition to study on campus: senior thesis writers whose work requires access to campus facilities or materials that would otherwise be unavailable; and students whose home circumstances impede their academic progress.

Bowdoin is doing something similar: “We will have some students back in the fall, but not all students.”

The group on campus will be: our new first-year and transfer students; students who have home situations that make online learning nearly impossible; a very small number of senior honors students who cannot pursue their pre-approved projects online and require access to physical spaces on campus, and can do so under health and safety protocols; and our student residential life staff.

Also similar is Swarthmore College, which gives certain populations “the option to return to campus this fall: First-year students Sophomores Incoming transfer students Resident Assistants.”  They show their math for how this aims at a certain population density:

we have determined that we can accommodate approximately 900 students on campus this fall. Typically, we have about 1,500 students on campus. That 900 figure is based on factors such as the number of rooms available to house all students in single bedrooms, the ratio of students to bathrooms in the residence halls, necessary cleaning protocols, our capacity to observe physical distancing in our dining facilities, and our ability to reserve housing spaces in the event that students need to be quarantined and isolated.

Smith College will primarily house first-year students.  Union College also emphasizes housing first-years, but gives others the choice of in-person or online.

Carleton College is bullish about the proportion of students who will appear in person (“We expect 85% of our student body to return to Northfield in the fall”), but is planning for a blended term:

No student will be required to return to campus in order to continue their Carleton education this fall, and no faculty member will be required to teach in person…

We will offer a hybrid curriculum. Some classes will be offered in person, some will be offered online, some will utilize both in-person instruction and online engagement, and some will be “mixed mode” classes with some students online and some in person. These varied delivery methods are necessary in order to manage classroom spaces and accommodate students and faculty who are working and studying remotely. All students should expect to take some online courses—including those living on campus.

Colby College will offer both in-person and online options this fall, but hasn’t specified which populations or what proportions of the community will take which choices, as far as I can make out.  College of the Holy Cross is similar.

Wellesley College offers an interesting twist, with one population dwelling there in the fall, and the rest in spring, swapping roles over the course of the academic year:

first-years and sophomores will be invited to campus this fall and will study remotely in the spring; juniors and seniors will study remotely in the fall and will be invited to campus in the spring.

Transformed calendar Many liberal arts campuses, and many beyond that sector, will end in person education with the Thanksgiving week, sending students home to study for exams and work on final projects remotely (example: Colby).

Beloit College went furtherBack in April they split their semesters into smaller pieces, giving them more flexibility to adjust to circumstances.

We’ll divide each term in the 20-21 academic year into two Mods, each containing two courses.

Instead of taking four courses at one time, students will do intensive work in two subjects, with a visible horizon. Courses will be designed to respond to evolving social and environmental factors, allowing students and faculty to pursue opportunities in a range of settings—in person, in the field, and on digital platforms. With more flexibility in their days, students will be able to engage in other life-changing experiences, from internships to trips, service learning to group projects.

Other campuses are now doing something similar.  Bates College offers semesters that “will comprise two 7.5-week modules, with students typically taking two classes at a time,” as is Mount Holyoke.

Changed course loads At least one campus, Davidson College, has redefined the number of classes a student must take to be counted as enrolled full time.  There are some interesting details:

During the 2020-2021 academic year, a full course load will be defined as at least three courses per semester.

The number of courses required for graduation – currently 32 – will be reduced for members of the Classes of 2021 through 2024. The requirement will be 31 courses for students enrolled for one semester of the coming academic year and 30 courses for those enrolled during both semesters.

This change may reduce enrollments in some courses, so the minimum class size for the 2020-2021 academic year will be reduced from four to two.

We could see this as an effort to reduce stress on students suffering from the manifold pressures of COVID-19.

Interdisciplinary, online COVID-19 classes Some liberal arts institutions are teaching the pandemic, and doing so in classic ways.  These classes are multidisciplinary and taught right to the moment.

Whitman College offered one in the spring, taught by instructors in biology, English, communications, physics, history, and more.  This included a bunch of lectures, which are now accessible online (one article about it). Oberlin offered one twice, from May through June, taught by “faculty members in biology, mathematics, politics, comparative American studies, cinema studies, economics, psychology, and rhetoric and composition…”

Manhattanville offers a summer class right now, or coming up fast, for incoming students.  Faculty are drawn from (among others) psychology, nursing, literature, international studies, art history, and sports studies. (one account) The University of Mary Washington – that unusual thing, a public liberal arts university – also taught/teaches a summer seminar on the pandemic.  Topics include biology, policy, communication, elections, climate change social justice, art, literature, chemistry, geography, history, and finance. Professors of communication and math facilitate.

Tuition cuts One financial anxiety looms across all of higher education: the fear that students and others will perceive online education as of lower quality, and will request – or demand – a price reduction.

Williams College got ahead of that demand, and its peers, by announcing a 15% tuition price cut for their blended, online and offline academic year.

In recognition of the extraordinary circumstances and of this academic year and the uncertainty we face in the year ahead, the total cost of attendance has been reduced by 15%. Tuition, room, and board for the 2020-2021 academic year will be $63,200.

Rollins College is offering a rebate for virtual classes:

For students who elect to attend all classes virtually, they will receive a grant of $2,500. Should all students need to move to virtual learning due to the virus, the grant will be pro-rated and awarded to all students.

Occidental is offering $1500.  I haven’t seen any other liberal arts campuses follow suit – so far.

Faculty dissent Unsurprisingly not all faculty agree with each of these administrative decisions.  One example comes from Middlebury College, which plans on opening up for in-person education after a supportive faculty vote, and where a group issued this statement calling for an online experience instead.

I appreciate how they pitched their argument in scenario terms:

We see four basic scenarios for how the fall might play out:

  1. In-person fall: We reopen campus for the majority of students and, having exercised widespread diligence and made broad investments in health and safety precautions, we are lucky enough to get to Thanksgiving without a significant outbreak.
  2. Mid-semester shutdown: We reopen campus for the majority of students, but despite our best efforts, there is an outbreak that causes us to shut down campus early, sending most students home, disrupting the semester and potentially infecting many students, employees and community members.
  3. Last minute abort: On June 22, we announce plans to reopen campus for the majority of students, but by the time that students would be due to arrive, conditions have changed locally, and/or outbreaks have emerged on other campuses that repopulated earlier than we do, resulting in our cancelling plans to bring students back at the last minute.
  4. Planned remote: We proactively plan to teach remotely, allowing only a small number of students on campus who would not otherwise be able to safely and effectively participate in remote learning if they were off campus.

We think scenario 4 of a remote semester is what we should plan for now.

Note that the authors link to another liberal arts institution’s expression of faculty critique, one from Macalester College’s biology department.

Journalists have covered professors willing to protest, either openly or with anonymity.  An art historian at Presbyterian College told NBC News of fearing for her safety.  The New York Times introduced and concluded an article on “Colleges Face Rising Revolt by Professors” with words by, and a photo of, a liberal arts college professor:

“Until there’s a vaccine, I’m not setting foot on campus,” said Dana Ward, 70, an emeritus professor of political studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., who teaches a class in anarchist history and thought. “Going into the classroom is like playing Russian roulette…”

[W]hether to go back into the classroom to teach is a hot topic among the faculty. “Nine out of 10 are worried,” he said, especially with the recent rise in cases in California.

Student dissent Liberal arts students may argue that their campus has followed the wrong policy.  Macalester College students recently launched an online petition urging an online fall term.  Since I started assembling this post, the petition’s authors suspended it in response to the recent ICE ruling on international students.  (I’m watching for more to appear here.)


What can we observe from these varied plans and trends?

It’s clear that the unevenness of COVID-19’s spread drives some decisions.  Southern California is currently a hotspot, so its campuses see themselves at greater risk.  In contrast Colgate justifies its actions by referencing New York state’s governmental policies and the central part of that state’s epidemic status.

These campuses deeply value in-person education.  You can see that in how presidents sadly announcing holding online semesters and in the Middlebury group’s frustration at what they see as the safest option.

There is a great deal of creativity at work in these decisions.  The range of plans and options, especially in details (which classes to invite back? how much testing is right?) speak to an intellectual ferment – as well as a dynamic scheduling, as these strategic decisions are occurring quickly, while in the midst of serious challenges.

You can see that intellectual strength and speed in how some of these schools quickly created classes about the pandemic.  Recall, too, how those are seriously interdisciplinary in nature.  It’s also visible in research about the pandemic’s impact on campuses co-authored by one liberal arts college economist.

Students play a key role in these plans.  Amherst begins its announcement by thanking and reflecting on student survey results.  Swarthmore’s recognizes “significant input from faculty, staff members, and students serving on various working groups…”  The Smith announcement also emphasizes students right from the start:

Throughout the spring and early summer of 2020, staff, students and faculty across the college worked to construct a plan for Smith’s response to COVID-19—a plan with health and safety, students’ education and the Smith experience at the center.

Again, this is a flexible situation with many possibilities of change before fall term starts.   There is more to say, especially about public health policies and campus finances.  I’ll update this post as more stories and announcements come in, and perhaps launch a new one once enough time passes or things change significantly.

Liberal arts colleges and universities on this post:

Amherst College
Bates College
Beloit College
Bowdoin College
Carleton College
Colby College
College of the Holy Cross
Colgate University
Colorado College
Davidson College
Dickinson College
Franklin and Marshall College
Furman University
Grinnell College
Hamilton College
Knox College
Lafayette College
Lawrence University
Macalester College
Manhattanville College
Middlebury College
Mount Holyoke College
Oberlin College
Occidental College
Pitzer College
Pomona College
Presbyterian College
Rhodes College
Rollins College
Scripps College
Smith College
Soka University
St. Olaf College
Swarthmore College
Union College
University of Mary Washington
Vassar College
Wellesley College
Whitman College
Williams College

(many thanks to Greg Diment for helping organize this post; thanks to Jim Wald, Off the Silk Road, Cheryl Orosz, Roberto Greco, and Todd Bryant and more for tips and reflections)

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2 Responses to Liberal arts colleges look to fall 2020

  1. I’d be especially interested in an analysis focusing on commuter campuses — community colleges and the local communities they serve and are part of.

  2. Pingback: Where We Stand with Covid-19 — July 17 - Off the Silk Road

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