Has Reopening Become a Partisan Issue?
Politics is one of several factors that appear to affect colleges’ decisions on reopening
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Other campuses nationwide began making their own announcements. They were forming task forces, working with local and national health officials, and exploring hybrid options. They were “committed” to in-person instruction, scenario planning, and waiting to decide. The Chronicle began tracking such announcements in late April, and the database now includes more than 875 colleges’ plans.
The announcements are typically full of caveats, mindful of “ever-changing global health circumstances.” Many plans to open primarily in person contain provisions for some online learning, and vice versa. Understandably, higher-ed experts have expressed skepticism that loophole-laden “decisions” made in April and May will hold up as the pandemic revises even the best-laid plans.
“Colleges Are Deluding Themselves” was the headline of an Atlantic article by Paul Quinn College’s president, Michael J. Sorrell. “A full reopening of most colleges in the fall almost certainly won’t happen,” wrote Robert Kelchen in a Chronicle opinion piece — “college leaders know all that.” (Kelchen attributed overly rosy plans to the financial need to keep students enrolled, to political posturing, and to sheer optimism.)
And yet even provisional plans reveal much about how higher education works today. We paired the information for roughly 800 institutions in our reopening tracker with National Center for Education Statistics data, and while our data set is not comprehensive, a few lessons stood out. Here are five of them.
The most selective colleges are by far the least likely to have announced plans for an in-person fall. While our database suggests that around two-thirds of colleges nationally are planning an in-person semester this fall, only 14 percent of extremely selective colleges (those with acceptance rates of under 20 percent) have said they will do so. Most of them are waiting to decide. At the other end of the spectrum, among the least selective colleges (those with acceptance rates over 80 percent), only three of 187 institutions were planning to open online this fall, and all three of those were part of the California State system’s umbrella decision for online instruction.
Covid-19 initially struck cities like New York and New Orleans the hardest. But over the past few months, it has spread to rural communities. Still, colleges in cities and suburbs are far less likely than those in towns and rural areas to say they plan to reopen in person. Colleges in more densely populated areas are also much more likely to be waiting to announce a decision: 11 percent of city- and suburb-based colleges are doing so, while only 3 percent of town-based and rural colleges are. Out of the roughly 200 rural and town-based colleges in our data set, only four are planning for a primarily online fall: Crafton Hills College, Eastern Washington University, Humboldt State University, and Mendocino College.
According to research by the Cornell University sociologists Kim Weeden and Benjamin Cornwell, the average Cornell undergraduate would come into contact with more than 500 other students in a typical week if the university were to reopen normally — and that accounts for just classroom interactions. Cornell has a total enrollment of around 24,000, and has announced it will make a decision on reopening in mid- to late June. Other large colleges are following suit. While only a few small colleges in our data set have not announced an in-person opening plan, less than half of the largest institutions have done so.
According to Elizabeth A. Hardin, vice chancellor for business affairs at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, money is the “binding constraint” for the fall — the major limiting factor on the practicality of opening. In announcing that the California State University system would be mostly online this fall, its chancellor, Timothy P. White, reportedly told trustees that testing for the coronavirus would cost the system $25 million per week. Bernard Bull, president of Goddard College, in Vermont, which announced an online fall plan, told Education Dive that “being a tuition-dependent college with limited cash reserves, it was not feasible for us to plan for both scenarios.”
Despite the expense of opening in person, many tuition-dependent institutions see it as the only financially viable path forward. Covid-19 has thrown yield models into disarray: While only 419 colleges reported space available for new applicants after last year’s May 1 deposit deadline, this year 729 did so, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Our tracker suggests that the most financially secure colleges have been the most hesitant to announce their intention to reopen in person. At the other end of the spectrum, only three of the more than 160 institutions in our data set with small endowments (those under $25 million) have said they were waiting to decide: Cornish College of the Arts, Portland State University, and Spring Arbor University. (Many other colleges have no endowments at all.)
New research from scholars at Davidson College suggests that this spring’s closure decisions had little to do with “campus infrastructure, including residence-hall capacity, hospital affiliation, and medical-degree offerings.” What may have played a role, however, was pressure from state governments. The paper notes that a similar effect may apply to reopening decisions, and our data suggest that may well be the case. Less than half of colleges in our data set located in states won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 have announced a plan to reopen in person. Among colleges located in states won by Donald J. Trump, almost 80 percent plan to do so. Only three institutions of the more than 400 in our data set located in states won by Trump plan to open primarily online this fall: Dallas County Community College District, Valencia College, and Wayne State University.