Colleges Aren’t Reopening in the Fall
Don’t be misled by presidents who say otherwise
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The next sentence of Nova’s press release is much more truthful: “This of course, is subject to the governor of Florida’s executive orders at the time of opening, as well as CDC and local government directives.” Politicians and public-health officials — not college presidents — are going to determine when colleges are allowed to open. Higher education will be one of the last industries to resume business as usual, because of concerns with social distancing, contact tracing, and the intermingling of younger students and older faculty and staff members. This means that a full reopening of most colleges in the fall almost certainly won’t happen.
College leaders know all that. So why are some of them still expressing public confidence in reopening? Here are three possible reasons:
To keep students enrolled. Most high-school seniors considering college strongly prefer classes in person, so colleges that make early announcements that the fall semester will be online run the risk of losing students to competitors. This year’s admissions cycle was already scrambled at many colleges because of the changes required by the Department of Justice in admissions practices. Cash-strapped colleges, more dependent than ever on net tuition revenue, have little choice but to express optimism now to avoid a larger hit to their budgets in the fall.
Political posturing. There is a partisan divide about both the severity of the pandemic and how quickly society should reopen, with Republicans generally less concerned about the virus and more supportive of a rapid reopening than Democrats are. This puts intense pressure on public-college leaders in conservative states to announce plans to reopen quickly. That could affect private colleges as well, depending on the political inclinations of their board members.
Sheer optimism. The end of the pandemic might well be a direct result of academic research; there have been a number of promising developments already. For example, Rutgers University has developed a rapid saliva test, and the University of Pittsburgh was among the first to create a potential vaccine. The American higher-education system excels at producing innovations, so some degree of optimism is appropriate. Outside of academe, too, there have been signs of progress toward a vaccine. However, these developments may be too late to save the fall semester on campus.
In reality, the prestigious colleges will be following leaders such as the California State University system, Santa Rosa Junior College, and Sierra College, which have already made the difficult decision to keep the fall term online. But the announcements by elite colleges will provide others with the political cover they need to make the necessary choice. Within one or two weeks, most of them will probably have followed suit.
That timeline creates major concerns about educational quality. Both colleges and students want fall courses to be better than the ones they had this spring. But designing courses to be most effective in an online format takes significant time and resources, and I worry about the implications of an early-July decision on courses that are to start eight weeks later. Instructional designers and information-technology professionals are likely to become overwhelmed, faculty members will balk at the additional uncompensated work, and everyone in higher education is already exhausted from the past few months.
Nobody wants to be among the first presidents to announce that classes will be fully online in the fall. The financial and political risks can’t be ignored. But the scenario is almost a certainty, and the risks will be even greater for colleges that take too long to prepare for it.