The post-COVID summer of higher education

What happens to higher education if COVID-19 vaccines are widely taken by next summer?

Way back in September I offered a scenario with a much darker vision, based on COVID continuing to gnaw on society for several more years.  Today I’d like to offer a more optimistic scenario.

Some supporters on Patreon contributed to this one, and I’m grateful to them (and you can join them!).

This scenario is predicated on several events occurring:

  1. One or more vaccines successfully pass both quality (effectiveness) and safety tests.
  2. Production occurs at enormous levels, with hundreds of millions of doses shipped in a few months.
  3. Adoption is widespread – i.e., the number of people resisting the coronavirus vaccine is small enough to allow some form of herd immunity to take place.

None of those events are certain to happen over the next few months, but they could.  Let’s assume they do for the purposes of today’s scenario.  Readers can work out what it would take for the stars to align – and share thoughts in comments below.

How might things fall out?


Infections soar in the United States and Europe.  The American outbreak spikes upwards as Thanksgiving, then Christmas holiday gatherings accelerate the viral spread.

Snapshot of infections from today, via 91-DIVOC:

coronavirus infections by nation-US 2020 Dec 6__91-DIVOCHospitalizations, injuries, and deaths follow suit.

At the same time vaccines race through tests and into early production.  Awareness of this is widespread, fanned by professional and social media.  This spurs both hope and carelessness, the latter driving cases up even further.  Some front-line health care workers get the first doses, as do at-risk seniors in care facilities.


Increased public health problems rise in January, as populations get lax w/vaccines’ promise.  Infections, injuries, and deaths keep building up, unevenly across nations and regions.  Mask wearing mandates are issued at city and county levels, informally backed by the incoming Biden administration.

coronavirus US death projections to Feb 21_dated 2020 Dec 6_IHMEcoronavirus US death projections to Feb 21_dated 2020 Dec 6_IHME

IHME projection.

Yet in the United States vaccines are distributed and taken by larger numbers of leading populations, including front line health workers and people living and working in elder care facilities.  As weeks go by vaccine production keeps churning.  More populations get access to doses.

Antivax sentiment is widespread.  Old school antivaxxers keep doing their thing.  Additionally, some right wingers urge people to avoid the shots, blaming the Biden administration and the media for pushing a bad treatment.  Antivax opinions also occur on the left, as a variety of opponents and arguments appear, from criticisms of the medical establishment to New Age nostrums.  Overall, women, black folks, younger people, and those without post-secondary education continue to be more skeptical than others.  Stories of side effects ricochet across social media.  But the majority of people flock to get whichever vaccine appears first.

In spring 2021 campuses tend to follow fall 2020 plans, more or less: a mix of in-person, online, and blended educational experiences.  More programs and classes are online than there were in the fall, given the pandemic’s general rise.  Appetite for the vaccine is among academics is high.  Different campus populations get access to doses at different calendar times, depending on each group’s role and also on differences by county, state, and region.

Meanwhile, more and more people get the vaccine as weeks and months go by, and winter yields to spring, then to


tree in Vermont summer lightBy May 2021 COVID cases are falling in Europe and the United States.  Hospitalizations and deaths lag, but follow the overall trend. Long haul injuries continue to occur, and also continue to avoid the media spotlight.

In academia there aren’t many classes offered, as per tradition, but a greater proportion occur in person, as compared to summer ’20.

To teach or take an in person class, each person must provide proof of vaccination. Such proofs are attested digitally, supported by a range of authorities (governmental offices, insurance companies), while some people prefer physical artifacts, such as bracelets.

Through May, June, and July each college and university carefully assesses these summer classes to see how they proceed. Some of these experiments backfire, as faculty, staff, or especially students* are diagnosed with COVID-19.

At some point in this season a majority of Americans are vaccinated.  After that, there are arguments about what number constitutes herd immunity (60%? 70?), and various organizations issue claims of different numbers being attained.  The overall trajectory continues to be of increasing vaccination.

Colleges and universities plan for the majority of fall ’21 to be face-to-face.

FALL 2021

By August and September the consensus is that COVID-19 is in retreat.  Numbers and assessments vary, with fierce arguments over case fatality and reinfection rates, but it is clear that fall 2020’s bleak escalation has been reversed.  Antivaxxers are nearly universally shunned, mocked, and derided; their numbers are falling.

Campuses eagerly welcome back students for higher-density experiences.  Administrations enforce various degrees of public health measures, including requiring proof of vaccination to set foot on campus, personal and waste water tests, and restrictions on crowds.

Cocurricular activities aim to return to pre-pandemic levels.  Sports fans flock to tailgating. Greek houses conduct their yearlong socialization. Clubs meet in person. Residence halls offer programs.  Guest speakers and performers hit platforms.

Not everyone returns to campus.  Some older faculty and staff, especially those with comorbidities, are cautious and argue for continuing to work remotely.  The same goes for younger people living with this population. Some students prefer to continue online, either from dread or convenience.  As a result each campus has to decide on how or if to offer some hybrid educational experience.  Once again, HyFlex is an option, as is offering dual catalogs (one for online, one for in-person).  A clear majority of students, faculty, and staff hit campus in person at close to 2019 levels.

Overall enrollment might jolt up for the first time since 2012 as more people feel better about higher education’s possibilities.  International student numbers could play a role in such an uptick.

At times COVID-19 outbreaks hit campuses.  Administrations respond with what is by now a familiar playbook: containment, quarantine, short-term Toggle Terms.


Tuition and fees may rise as campuses try to recover from the pandemic’s financial hole.

Students who took classes in 2020-2021 will refer to themselves as “the Class of COVID.”  Some number might see themselves as having endured a subpar educational experience.  Some might begrudge pre- and post-COVID students.

Some faculty will happily withdraw from digital practice, setting aside an experience they found unpleasant or faulty in favor of one they knew better.  Others will continue to teach online different degrees, from offering programs online to flipping classes.

Overall, the post-COVID campus is more digital than what schools looked like in 2019.  Some institutional operations have migrated thoroughly online, including many administrative functions, most of faculty and staff hiring.  Online programs and distance learning as a whole enroll higher numbers than ever:

Faculty seek to claw back some governance capacity after perceiving administrations having grown in size and scope for emergency purposes.

Research in non-pandemic fields will have to catch up with those that worked on COVID.  This might be a source for grant-making and campus support – or else the gap will persist.

Much depends on the cultural memory of the pandemic.  Will we suppress it and move on, like the Great Influenza and the 2008 financial crash?  Or will it play an active role in our thinking?

If we remember, then:

Universal Design for Learning could add a public health dimension.

-Campus building design could change to allow more social distancing and connections between interior spaces and the outside.

-Pandemic-related academic programs will keep growing in enrollment and support.

-Campus operations are more extensively digital than they were before the pandemic hit.

-“Now that HigherEd institutions know what is required to confront the next public health crisis, remote teaching and learning has become a concrete option instead of an extreme, far-fetched scenario.” (Cristian Opazo)

Thus concludes the scenario.  It’s one I think many in academia will appreciate.

Remember that scenarios are not predictions so much as models of what might occur, given certain conditions.

It’s also a scenario covering a lot of moving parts, and just a first pass at the topic.  What do you think of it?  What else should we bear in mind?  Overall, how do you think it could play out?

EDITED TO ADD: comments from Twitter:

Shane Meyer sees professional association and travel altered:

Paul Martin hoped that teaching would improve, based on a certain campus capacity being realized:

[W]hat changes to teaching will be made by those who never took advantage of their institution’s CTL until they were forced to by the pandemic. Will the experience have been transformative or a temporary step away from what they’ve always done[?]

Jill Yoshikawa sees an opportunity to rethink higher ed:

Peter Elliott thinks financial damage will be harsher:

RalphGigliotti thinks one aspect of the curriculum will receive a boost:

Thecman thinks students will pressure post-pandemic institutions for more flexibility:

On LinkedIn, Suzanne Wilson Summers adds a great point:

Where the politics of this will get hairy and shape the scenario is whether or not public institutions will be able to require vaccinations (as we currently do for meningitis) for both students and employees in red states like mine. It’s hard to see states like TX, FL, GA, etc,. that have treated masks as an individual freedom issue not doing the same with vaccines. If that’s the case, I think it will have a long-term impact on the ability to recruit faculty.

(Thanks to my Patreon supporters, especially Catherine Wehlburg)

*I wrote “especially students” not to shame them, but for the simple statistical reason that there are a lot more students than instructors or support staff.

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3 Responses to The post-COVID summer of higher education

  1. Deborah Penner says:

    My sense is that at my institution (small liberal arts 4 year residential with some grad programs) will continue to develop the online or hybrid education model, especially for graduate and adult learners. Some programs must remain in-person at some level, but our students have adapted well to the hybrid model and some (about 50 percent) tend to prefer it. Since we are small, we were able to keep some in-person contact with all students once or twice a week. Students continued to play all sports with some interruptions when a member of a team tested positive or the opposing team did. Convocations were in person or by video, but since we have a large 800 seat auditorium, there was plenty of room to social distance there. Everyone needed to obtain an entrance ticket and assigned seat to attend events. Our music and theatre groups were very creative with performances outdoors and with radio plays and video performances. We were already trending toward more online pre COVID-19 with a robust high school dual credit program (all online) for four years and an adult program for a decade, so this pandemic probably has a silver lining in that it has accelerated the move to even more online. Faculty who were once resistant to online are now thriving in that space.

  2. Nicholas Santilli says:

    Hi Bryan,

    Thoughtful scenario. Thank you. Unless I missed it I think there will a growing exodus of college and university faculty and staff into retirement, either by choice or through buy-outs to mitigate financial stresses on institutions.

    Also, if we see a sluggish financial recovery we may see an acceleration of mergers, acquisitions, and closures.

    Hope you are well,

    Nick Santilli

  3. Joe Murphy says:

    I’m wondering to what extent this crisis will challenge the “traditional” calendar. Your scenario calls for summer to continue to be a slow time for education – but I can imagine multiple pressures to offer more summer classes. In the short term, the summer could be a time to make up for COVID-related lost opportunities, particularly physical experiences like lab sciences, fieldwork, or fine arts. Students who failed or dropped courses during the pandemic might demand expanded summer offerings (perhaps online) so they can get back on track to graduate on time. If those same pressures extend to K-12, that seems to lead toward a permanent increase in summer classes offered.

    It’ll be interesting to see who continues widespread HyFlex offerings, and why. I can imagine administrative imperatives to do so as a cost-cutting (a.k.a. faculty-cutting) measure. Many faculty members, though, would resist increased HyFlex offerings, even preferring online-only classes to the complexities of the mixed mode. Of course, this depends in part on our definition of “hybridity” – before COVID there was a lot of discussion about “hybrid” classes which reduced (but didn’t eliminate) mandatory classroom time. It seems that the directive to replace F2F contact hours with Zoom sessions swamped that goal, but I can imagine it returning.

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