3 ways the spring 2021 semester will look different than fall 2020

Expert Insight

3 ways the spring 2021 semester will look different than fall 2020

As we reach the midpoint of the fall term, attention on many campuses now turns to the spring. While some universities have already announced their operating status and academic calendar for the spring 2021 semester, many more are expected to decide in the coming weeks. And though campus leaders can take advantage of their experiences preparing for this past fall when looking ahead, the challenges expected during the spring term will nevertheless require a different approach.

Here are three reasons why this spring will be different than the fall term—and how that impacts campus planning efforts.

1. Life around campus will probably seem more normal

As university leaders planned and prepared over the summer, much of society was (formally or informally) locked down. Stores were at half capacity, and indoor restaurants, gyms, and theaters were heavily restricted. However, in recent months communities have eased their lockdown restrictions and found ways to permit “normal” activities to occur, often by using social distancing, mask wearing, and outdoor venues. This trend is expected to continue even if there is a resurgence of the virus over the end of the calendar year, as political and public appetites for strict lockdowns subside in most of the United States.

Communities around colleges and universities will likely be more open and active this spring.

University leaders should anticipate that the communities around their campuses will appear more open and active this spring than during the past fall. This external environment may contrast starkly with the careful repopulation efforts cultivated on campus, and cross-contamination may undermine well-reasoned plans. In particular, universities should expect students and staff living off campus during the spring 2021 semester to engage in more and more “risky” activities that might be frowned upon within the campus boundaries. Constituents will likely also become less vigilant in their social distancing and other preventative efforts.

2. Students, parents, and employees will have higher expectations

Spring 2021 will mark nearly a year of the coronavirus pandemic, and with so much time passed, campus constituents will have higher expectations of the safety, experience, and value universities can provide. The spring 2020 term was the period of crisis; the fall 2020 term was the time of experimentation. Most students and faculty, even when frustrated, were willing to give campus leaders the benefit of the doubt in attempting new procedures and trialing new protocols. However, these same stakeholders now have a plethora of successful repopulation and instructional examples from the fall to reference when comparing the performance of their own school. With the bar set higher, universities will have less room for error, and the consequences of coming up short in the spring 2021 semester will be more impactful.

Leaders should prepare for these expectations by proactively identifying areas of continued challenge (such as test material acquisition) and transparently showcasing the ways the institution is making progress. Leaders can also ensure common pain points identified during the fall term—such as missing preparations for quarantine spaces and lack of support for those with fluctuating childcare arrangements—are adequately addressed.

3. Setbacks will have a greater impact on enrollment and student success

Many students and their parents will spend a significant portion of the spring 2021 semester deciding whether they wish to enroll (or re-enroll) with their schools of interest. While campus repopulation efforts that came up short in the fall will likely have long been forgotten, shortcomings occurring in the early spring semester will have a strong impact on the impressions prospective students and their families will have of campus. Current students may also decide that the lack of an engaging virtual alternative to the traditional on-campus experience makes the price of attendance less sensible compared to other local options with lower price tags.

Leaders need to double down on investments to support recruitment, retention, and graduation efforts. For institutions bringing a limited number of students back to campus, many are focusing on seniors during the spring to try to support matriculation and provide a final positive experience for future potential donors. Others are targeting students at risk of dropping out by providing them with an on-campus experience, as well as additional digital advising and mentoring support. And some schools are making major modifications to their marketing and recruitment strategies, such as virtual tours and revamped institutional websites, to showcase the institution without requiring prospective students to come to campus.

Improving the planning process for the spring 2021 semester

Given the differing expectations and requirements of the spring 2021 term, leaders should review and revise the planning processes they used to prepare for the fall 2020 semester. Some of the evaluations recommended for leaders to perform include:

  • Review campus repopulation protocols in light of your fall experience and new medical information. For example, do new types of testing and the success attributed by many campuses to their extensive testing regimens lead to a revision of your campus’s testing frequency and scale?
  • Evaluate the successes (and shortcomings) of peer institutions to identify opportunities for improvement or adjustment on your campus.
  • Reprioritize resources to address new challenges arising from the extended pandemic, including skyrocketing rates of mental health illness and digital instruction fatigue.
  • Prepare for long-term changes to your campus caused by the pandemic, including locking-in investments made to support remote instruction and work as well as the impact of enrollment patterns on the institution’s financial sustainability.

Using early indicators and extrapolating from past economic and global health data, EAB has developed three scenarios for how to forecast the impact of COVID-19 on university enrollments, finance, and student success over the next 12-18 months.

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