Why colleges should have fewer students on campus this fall

Expert Insight

Why colleges should have fewer students on campus this fall

It’s time to de-densify as much as possible

EAB’s latest recommendations on de-densification: The start of the fall term has shown that even the best-prepared institutions must alter course for their campus operations to keep their campuses safe from further COVID-19 outbreaks

Last month, I wrote that the breakdowns in COVID-19 testing had left colleges and universities with only one lever to pull: more de-densification. The first weeks of term—even for the best-prepared institutions—suggest that it’s time to pull that lever as much as possible and limit the number of students that return to campus. Below, I lay out the rationale that leads to this sad, but inevitable, conclusion.

Even the best plans didn’t really work

Back in June, EAB laid out key components of return-to-campus plans. There were two broad areas we focused on—containment and de-densification.



Although UNC-Chapel Hill has taken a lot of criticism for their aborted start to the semester, it had among the most robust plans of any university attempting to bring large numbers of students to campus. And despite the number of students on UNC’s campus we’ve seen in images the last few weeks, the plan did include significant reductions in capacity to both classrooms and residence halls.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s plan had three features that shouldn’t be overlooked:

  • Ample testing of symptomatic students
  • Fast turnaround time on test analysis
  • Transparency of reporting test results

These factors are hugely important, but many schools don’t have access to the testing and labs that UNC-Chapel Hill does, won’t be able to do the same amount of testing, and can’t turn around results as quickly. And still fewer institutions are making their test results publicly available.

No plan is perfect, but UNC-Chapel Hill’s was informed by some of the best public health experts in the country. If they can’t execute on such a plan, few schools are likely to be more successful.

The “campus experience” is irreconcilable with public health

Most people agree that a large part of the value of the traditional undergraduate experience occurs outside the classroom—students learn from each other and about themselves in many residential settings. They want to socialize, and this doesn’t just mean party. They want to talk to each other in residence halls; they want to explore their sexuality; they want to meet new people and hear about the different experiences of their new friends.

Many universities surveyed students about whether they wanted to return to campus, but fewer (if any) asked why. I think a little scrutiny applied to this question will yield an answer that is something other than “to take two courses via Zoom and two others face-to-face on Tuesdays and alternate Thursdays.” 

In fact, some institutions with strict classroom de-densification measures and courses available remotely have already seen students start to opt for the virtual experience, given the exacting nature of public health compliance for in-person learning. This indicates that many students are coming back for the campus experience—but the campus experience simply can’t be conducted in accordance with public health guidelines in a way that appeals to students.

It’s not realistic to expect college students to wear a mask or isolate for 16 hours per day

Many university plans call for students to wear masks at all times when they aren’t in their residence hall room or suite. In other words, students must socialize remotely or with a mask. It may not sound hard in the abstract, but it’s much harder in practice.

Consider that most students going to a campus right now have been living at home for the summer, where they likely could socialize with at least some other people without a mask. This is the environment they are leaving behind, which will make it difficult to quickly adapt to only socializing with a mask on. And it probably isn’t a realistic expectation that after several hours out and about in class or the library, students come back to the residence halls and either isolate in their rooms or socialize via Zoom.

Blaming students gets in the way of more important prevention measures

There have been many images in the news of college students pouring out of off-campus houses in recent weeks, and it’s easy to see these photos and think that students are solely at fault for the outbreaks on college campuses. This has led many institutions to dial up their rhetoric assigning blame for upticks in cases to student behavior.

But this approach can sometimes cross over into victim-blaming. Some students certainly merit scolding, but not all students who get infected—perhaps not even most—will have been brazenly flouting social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines. Some will be infected because their roommate or suitemate contracted the virus, or because someone wasn’t wearing a mask with a strong seal, or because they touched a surface that had recently been contaminated

As students return to campus, some universities have begun to more tightly police social distancing and mask-wearing regulations by imposing severe sanctions (removal from campus, suspensions, and even the threat of expulsion) for non-compliance with these rules. While it’s easy to understand universities’ desire to crack down on behavior that could accelerate the spread of disease, such draconian measures are likely to have counterproductive consequences. If students know they may be on the receiving end of such a punishment, it’s far less likely that they comply with the symptom monitoring, testing, and contact tracing protocols universities need them to follow.

The best-case scenario is rolling residence hall lockdowns

Colorado College is another institution that crafted a robust plan for a return to in-person instruction, executing a phased approach that has first-year students come to campus before anyone else. Yet, on day one, they had to put an entire residence hall into lockdown

Colorado College followed public health guidance—they identified a positive case, they isolated that student, and they brought in contact tracers. And, unsurprisingly, the contact tracers discovered that students in the residence hall had all been socializing with one another. The contact tracers recommended locking down the entire residence hall, and the college took their advice.

The question institutions really should ask students is, “do you want to be on campus for an experience of rolling lockdowns in exchange for some in-person instruction and some socializing when not in lockdown?”

But even in the best-case scenario for Colorado College—even if student zero didn’t infect anyone else in this particular case—at some point, another student in the residence hall will test positive. Presumably contact tracers will once again discover socializing in the residence hall, and the residence hall will go back on lockdown. These sorts of rolling lockdowns will wind up being the norm over the course of a semester. The students might be taking in-person classes, but they’ll be taking them remotely a good portion of the time.

The question institutions really should ask students is, “do you want to be on campus for an experience of rolling lockdowns in exchange for some in-person instruction and some socializing when not in lockdown?”

Again, Colorado College is a school relatively well-prepared for this scenario. Many colleges and universities don’t have the amount of testing needed to be able to catch an outbreak before it spreads through most of a residence hall, and they don’t have the staffing infrastructure to support an entire residence hall in lockdown.

Universities should limit students on campus to only those requiring in-person instruction for degree progress

These examples of schools with robust plans struggling with early outbreaks make it increasingly clear that colleges and universities should significantly scale back plans (if still possible) for the number of students they encourage to come back to campus. While institutions should prioritize welcoming back those students needing on-campus instruction for degree progress, it is also important that they accommodate students who lack alternative housing options, such as international students, housing insecure students, and students with unsafe home environments.

Now is not the time to worry about the PR consequences of changing course or reversing a decision. The university community may be disappointed that the in-person experience can’t be what they want it to be right now, but disappointment is better than landing on the New York Times’ list of clusters or worse yet, contributing to serious illness or death. What’s more, these return-to-campus plans were always subject to change. The last few weeks has provided new information, which makes it a perfect time for higher ed leaders to revise existing plans.

Colleges and universities that make a final decision for this semester will also have more time to make better plans for the Spring term. The best public health thinking continues to evolve as we learn more about the disease and develop new testing and therapeutics. For example, recent epidemiological models have suggested the frequency of COVID-19 testing is more important than the accuracy of individual tests. At the same time, new, cheaper, point-of-site tests are being developed that could enhance our ability to test more often for a lower cost.

It’s difficult to accept that students can’t have the “campus experience,” and the financial consequences for universities are particularly high. The revenue shortfall from reduced auxiliary revenue will be a challenging situation for many colleges and universities, but the best public health mitigation approaches haven’t yielded the hoped-for results at schools that have attempted to welcome back students this semester. However painful—logistically, financially, psychologically—it’s time to change course.

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