Now that we’ve entered (virtual) commencement season, college and university leaders are shifting their gaze from the emergency responses needed for spring terms toward big questions about the fall. While many observers are skeptical that any institution can safely resume either face-to-face instruction or campus activities without dramatic changes to our current pandemic landscape (rates of new cases and hospitalizations, availability and reliability of testing resources, and contact tracing capacity in particular), presidents are now boldly announcing plans to re-open their campuses by late August—or earlier.
In fact, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s mid-May tally, 68% of institutional announcements regarding the Fall academic term express confidence that face-to-face instruction will resume. Only 10% are planning for a primarily online term.
Behind these pronouncements lie thousands of incredibly busy taskforces scrambling to resolve this tension—we know our constituents are hungry for a clear indication about the fall, and for many, our ability to repopulate campus translates to our very financial sustainability. Room and board income, for example, accounts for 40-60% of total student revenues at most institutions.
Here at EAB, we’ve spoken with over 100 provosts over the last 6 weeks to learn what they’re struggling with, how they’re communicating to faculty, staff, and students, and what progress they’ve made in planning for the fall. Below are some of the themes that have emerged:
Decision on fall residential opening largely dependent on institutional segment
Last week, Chancellor Timothy White of the California State University (CSU) System announced that their 23 campuses (which serve nearly 500,000 students in total) will take a ‘primarily virtual’ approach to fall. Simmons University announced a virtual curriculum, buttressed by their partnership with online program management firm 2U. A number of others, including Purdue University, Radford University, and Northeastern University, have announced their intention for a full, physical campus opening—including many aspects of the traditional campus experience.
What’s driving the divergence in plans?
Public institutions serving mostly commuter populations at low cost are much less likely to suffer blowback from early signals that the on-campus experience may be limited.
Institutions with more demand than space (like many CSU campuses) can afford a decline in yield, and have historically benefitted from the capacity ‘release valve’ afforded by virtual, flexible instructional models. Those institutions struggling to meet their incoming class targets and with more capacity than demand are racing to reassure students that their full value proposition will be on offer by this fall.
Those with existing investments in virtual course delivery, flexible scheduling, and remote student support are much better positioned to opt for a primarily-virtual fall. For many small, residential privates, provosts are rightly concerned about the cost of developing a new, high-quality online course catalog in time for a fall debut.
Given the costs already incurred during the Spring term (fee refunds, cleaning and operational expenses) and impending revenue shortfalls, many institutions need to maximize their largest sources of revenue this fall in order to stay afloat. The earlier students, parents, faculty, and staff are assured your campus will return to operating status, the easier it will be to collect those revenues. Of course, those assurances bring with them significant risks—what happens when an outbreak is traced to one of your newly-reopened residence halls?
Institutions with medical schools, academic medical centers, extensive onsite public health capacity, or significant local health resources are at a clear advantage for signaling confidence to the market about the availability of PPE, testing, and adequate response capabilities.
Ultimately, it’s important to see past the rhetoric in any “opening for business” announcements. If the average university is able to have 20% of its student, faculty, and staff population on campus this fall, both the “mostly virtual” and “planning to have F2F instruction” pronouncements will be correct. The challenge lies in safely designing a campus experience for even a small cohort of students.
Logistics of hybrid term dominating campus taskforce discussions
When asked what worries them most about the fall, provosts in our virtual roundtable meetings placed the logistics of preparing for an uncertain term structure at the top of their list—ahead of budget cuts, enrollment declines, student retention, and health & safety risks.
As institutions shift from whether they’ll announce an intention to open to how, when, and to whom they’ll open (and under what conditions) – the variables at play expend into the thousands. Many plan to gradually reopen, pairing a number of pandemic prevalence risk indicators with an internal prioritization of the lowest-risk and highest-need populations and activities. If, for example, local case rates are low and steadily declining, local health care facilities have adequate non-crisis capacity, and states have provided extensive PPE and testing resources, many hope to open single or even double-residency dorm units to first year students with a regular regime of testing and careful sanitation.
Even a gradual repopulation will require extensive academic planning, the likes of which most faculties have never attempted. What would a transmission-safe classroom even look like, and would it even matter if students funneled into narrow corridors, stairwells, and elevators after attending? How will students, staff, and faculty respond to administrative efforts to selectively populate campus? Are provosts prepared for difficult conversations about privacy, pre-existing conditions, and legal liability?
Finally, the COVID19 pandemic has forced provosts into a difficult financial corner: at the same time most are faced with 8- or 9-figure budget shortfalls for the next fiscal year (having already frozen adjunct budgets and new faculty hires), demands on faculty are likely to increase. Many of the courses most in need of development and attention this fall historically relied on part-time instructor labor and large lecture formats. Without those instructors or spaces, can we shift full-time faculty workloads to accommodate student needs (and don’t forget advising and mentoring, in addition to instruction)?
Out-of-classroom experiences hardest to provide, monitor
Provosts and other academic leaders are rightly prone to focus on their core academic mission, but many are quick to remind us that students aren’t just purchasing access to instruction when they pay their tuition bills. Many are equally concerned (if not more concerned) about the ‘bells and whistles,’ so to speak, from athletics and campus events to student organizations and serendipitous socialization after class.
How might we provide those opportunities, even if a large share of the student population is able and willing to return this fall under strict social distancing protocols?
How will we regulate, track, and respond to student activity outside the classroom and residence halls? Campus leaders risk obsessing over the minutia of their campus-centric locus of control, when many students will inevitably travel and live off campus, mixing with others far outside institutional testing cohorts. As one remarked, even if football teams play in empty stadiums, there will still be viewing parties.
Innovative approaches emerging to mitigate latest concerns about Fall
As of this writing, our partners still have many more questions than answers to the fall puzzle. Still, new ideas arise with each passing day that may help guide your faculty in designing a viable academic experience that can stand the test of severe uncertainty. Here are few we’ve come across:
If 2012 was ‘the year of the MOOC,’ the 2020-21 academic year may be recalled for the rapid adoption of HyFlex course design. In this model, students are able to ‘toggle back and forth’ between face-to-face and online instruction in the same course, without suffering a decrement in quality or engagement. Often this entails a level of multitasking and asynchronous content development that most instructors aren’t accustomed to. While HyFlex is typically a boon to equity (allowing a broader population to flexibly enroll), it can raise equity concerns if course discussions and materials aren’t made universally accessible.
Some provosts have proposed a written conduct guide or online module encouraging responsible behavior on and off campus in the fall. Colleges can only do so much to prevent and control the spread of COVID19—leaders should emphasize the social contract necessitated by an ambitious campus repopulation target.
Delayed Visa processing and travel restrictions will make travel to campus this fall next to impossible for most international students currently outside the US and Canada. Some provosts have prioritized plans for a high-quality online curriculum available to new international students—hoping that firewall and security concerns don’t prevent course delivery and assessment.
The total share of students invited back to campus this fall can be subdivided into smaller, more contained, and easier-to-trace subgroups. Separating Tuesday and Thursday cohorts within a standard T/Th course (Each assembling only one day per week, with the other day remote), for example, is one strategy under consideration. Others include staggering course start and end times to prevent crowed transit, and moving to a 7-day class schedule to spread physical assembly more thinly across the week. Several institutions are even considering full block scheduling and mini-terms—ensuring on-campus students only take one course at a time and potentially swap modalities each term.
Stay tuned for more guidance from the Academic Affairs Forum—We are closely tracking both the external drivers at play in campus operation planning and new ideas in course delivery to guide our partners’ decision-making.