With colleges and universities in the midst of (virtual) graduation season, it might seem like an odd time to talk about students returning to campus. But that’s exactly the discussion that’s happening at just about every institution of higher education around the country.
The pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on every sector of the economy. But with the exception of the restaurant, travel and entertainment industries, few stand to be hit harder than higher education.
Since mid-March, when colleges closed their campuses and moved to online learning, they’ve lost billions of dollars in housing and food service fees. At the same time, their endowments have been battered by losses in the stock market. As a result, they’ve furloughed staff and frozen hiring.
While Congress tried to allay some of this with a $14 billion aid package as part of the CARES Act, colleges say this represents only a fraction of the economic impact they’ve suffered. Recently, they requested another $46 billion from the federal government.
These are big numbers. But they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Because the real impact is going to come if colleges can’t bring students back to campus this fall.
Most college and universities rely primarily on tuition for revenues. This is especially true at private colleges, which can draw 80% or more of their budgets from tuition and associated fees.
Already, colleges expect the coronavirus to take a big chunk out of international enrollment figures. With travel restrictions and a reluctance to leave home countries during the pandemic, the American Council on Education projects a 25% drop in foreign students at U.S. universities next year. That’s particularly significant because international students typically pay full tuition, which serves to subsidize financial aid packages for Americans.
But if colleges can’t open their doors – and dorms and dining halls – to the remainder of their student body, the pain will cut much deeper.
Colleges are polling their students and running models to predict what a virtual fall semester will look like in terms of enrollment numbers. Understandably, they’re keeping these projections close to their vests. Because, I suspect, the numbers don’t look pretty.
During this spring of Zoom learning, the reviews I’ve heard from students have ranged from “meh” to “Until I can sit in an actual classroom with a flesh-and-blood professor, I’m not going back.”
Of those who would opt out, many would likely seek out lower-cost options (think local community colleges) for virtual learning. Zoom has “flattened” the classroom experience, lessening or eliminating many of the factors that differentiated one learning environment or professor from another. So, if you’re going to sit in your parents’ home and look at a screen, why pay more, especially if you can subsequently transfer that credit back to your university when it reopens?
Especially with the low levels of serious complications and deaths from COVID-19 in young people, all of this points to one outcome: Colleges across the country will be open for business this fall.
Reopening the doors
Already, we’ve seen this in our state, where the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and many other institutions have announced their intentions to welcome students back to campus in a few months. In the past few weeks, we’ve also seen it with national universities like Notre Dame and Rice, which have made similar announcements.
Notre Dame and Rice have both adopted schedules that forgo fall break and deliver students home by Thanksgiving. The idea is that by streamlining the semester and avoiding breaks, the schools can minimize the possibility that students will bring the virus back to campus from their various home communities across the country. (Still to be decided: What happens after these students spend Thanksgiving through New Year’s from New York to California and beyond?)
At Oklahoma colleges and universities, such a strategy may not be necessary, as the vast majority of students hail from local communities. Still, the “how” of college openings everywhere will hinge on many yet-to-be-answered questions.
Will schools test all of their students for the virus before bringing them back to campus? If so, how? What kind of social distancing policies will they implement, and how will they be enforced? Will students be required to wear masks? What happens when a student gets sick? And how will schools deal with clusters of cases?
Obviously, these are questions with no easy answers. But answering them thoughtfully and thoroughly is a must. Because how we reopen these institutions can serve as a model for how best to reopen our communities – and to find our way to a new normal.