Skip navigation
EAB Logo Navigate to the EAB Homepage Navigate to EAB home

Back to School: Colleges Consider What Fall 2020 Will Look Like

Episode 7

May 12, 2020 27 minutes


Colleges are signaling their intent to welcome students back to campus this fall. EAB’s Carla Hickman and David Attis talk about the strategy behind those announcements and discuss examples of schools that are doing an exceptional job of communicating with students and families on this issue.

Carla and David also share insights from the scenario planning exercises they are leading with partner schools to assess how an institution and its budget are likely to be impacted. They discuss the difficult choices administrators may be forced to make. And they outline how school leaders can use the current crisis to help their college or university emerge stronger than before.



0:00:14.8 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish, and this is Office Hours, a weekly podcast exploring the biggest challenges facing higher education. We’ve all been watching pretty intently this past week as many states started loosening a lot of their restrictions on social distancing. We wanna see what does the new post-COVID-19 world look like and we’re all curious. In a similar way, several colleges, other universities, they jumped out this week and they announced that they intend to have students on campus in the fall, leaving us similarly wondering what does that mean? What does that look like? Today, we’ve got David Attis and Carla Hickman back. They’re gonna talk about the strategy behind those announcements. They’re also helping talk us through some of the ways they’ve been helping schools work through the many and various scenarios of what it means to actually run a campus in the fall, and what are the budget implications? What are the student success implications of opening up again come fall of 2020? Thanks for listening and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.


0:01:25.2 David Attis: Hi, this is David Attis, Managing Director in EAB Research, coming to you from my basement in Silver Spring, Maryland. And I’m delighted to be joined by Carla Hickman. Hello, Carla.

0:01:35.0 Carla Hickman: Yes, David, good to be back on the pod with you. I am still in Chattanooga, Tennessee, from my home office. I remember last time you and I chatted, it was a beautiful 80-degree day here. That is not the case today, so there are massive thunderstorms rolling in, but it’s amazing to me that it was a month ago we were last chatting on the pod.

0:01:54.5 DA: It seems like forever.

0:01:56.6 CH: I think it’s that old adage that the days are long, but the weeks are flying by.

0:02:02.8 DA: Exactly. In speaking of the weeks flying by, the news of this week was really a series of announcements by different campuses that they would be open in the fall. What’s your take on that?

0:02:13.6 CH: You know, David, I almost feel like it’s the wrong question, and I was talking to a few of our partner institutions that really took exception with the use of the word open, this concept that universities and colleges are somehow closed when the truth is, teaching is ongoing. Many folks are still in their academic term, I still have a couple of folks still taking finals, faculty are still thinking around scholarship, they’re thinking about instruction, and so it’s not that our university and college campuses ever closed down, they weren’t a hair salon or a restaurant. But instead, I do think and I completely understand the pressure that folks are feeling to restore some of the public confidence on what next academic year will actually look like, because I do think as the weeks have gone by, there’s an understanding that what fall looked like in 2019 can’t be what our students and our staff and faculty will experience in fall ’20.

0:03:11.9 DA: Yeah, I think that’s part of the anxiety behind these announcements is, we all want to go back to what it looked like last fall, even though we all recognize it’s not going to look like that at all, so why then the spate of announcements? Is it an accident that all these announcements are wrapping right before May 1?

0:03:28.1 CH: I certainly don’t think it is. College signing day or decision day, May 1 is still that date for many students, and while that only speaks to a SWOT or a segment of higher education, and we know that some pushed that decision to June 1, I was not at all surprised, and I don’t at all want to minimize the pressure that universities and college leaders are feeling around this enrollment uncertainty, and as students are trying to decide whether they should commit or not, and I think that’s not just about the incoming class, although certainly a lot of the announcements that I’ve read have been very focused on those admitted populations, I think there’s also a desire to try to alleviate some of the anxiety your continuing students are feeling as well, and that more campuses are starting to worry about their retention, not just what their full head count numbers are gonna look like on census day.

0:04:21.6 DA: Yeah. And I think for all the heroic efforts that were made in emergency remote instruction, students are missing campus life, whether that’s high school seniors who are missing their graduations and their proms and everything now, or it’s your students who don’t like living at home and wanna come back and have those great experience that they’re missing right now. So I can see why they want to be told don’t worry, you’ll be back in campus on the fall. What do you think are some of the biggest constraints though, in terms of how will the fall look different than last fall did?

0:04:55.0 CH: I would not have wanted to be the folks that were actually drafting these announcements that we’re reading because it is incredibly difficult to get it right when there is so much out of your control. And I don’t know if you felt the same way, I’ve actually been surprised by how bullish so many campuses have been about their ability to bring folks back to campus. Again, residential experiences and in-person classroom-based instruction only speaks to a portion of the higher ed audience, but it feels like there is a fear to acknowledge that we might need to continue with emergency teaching or remote classes, and a real longing to say no, we’re gonna do everything within our power to make sure we can come back. And I’ve been curious, I know you’ve been on the phone with a lot of cabinets who’ve been trying to make these really tough calls. There’s the public announcement and then there’s the conversation happening behind the scene, so I would assume even the campuses who have put forth the strongest statements about going back to in-person instruction, there’s a lot of contingency planning going on around what the public health indicators would need to look like and how you plan for the fact that we might not be able to sustain that come September.

0:06:07.0 DA: Absolutely, and I think everyone realizes that it’s not your decision to make whether you bring students back face-to-face in the fall at your normal start date, and I noticed as a code and a lot of the announcements, we intend to open on time, which often means we might have to be remote if we open on time or we intend to open face-to-face, which might mean we might have to wait until it’s safe to open face-to-face. But as I look at the different epidemiological scenarios, no one thinks this is going to magically get better over the course of the fall. There are some people who are predicting a pretty big resurgence around the flu season next year, others are predicting these two or four-week waves where we social distance and we go back to it. And it struck me that college universities are different from other types of businesses or even K-12 institutions, where they can on a certain day say, “We’re closed today. It’s a bad day. We’re open tomorrow.” You can do that at a restaurant or at a casino or at a K-12 school, but as a university, if you have students of your own campus, you can’t simply say, “Today we’re open. Tomorrow, we’re closed.” You have to plan for much longer periods of time, and that’s what’s gonna be so challenging for them.

0:07:14.6 CH: Well, I also wonder how many students, even if we’re in a period where the campus stores, the figment of our imagination of campus stores are open, how many students are gonna want that? And I have wondered how we’re getting a student’s perspective on their comfort with being back in a residential living situation, or being in a classroom, or being on campus. And I’ll admit, have been a little disappointed by many of the announcements understandably focused on students, but what is the announcement you need to make for your faculty and staff who are also very concerned about their safety and health, and what an in-person fall term might look like for them?

0:07:55.6 DA: Yeah, absolutely.

0:07:56.2 CH: So David, one of the things that I think is helpful, I do actually think there’s some advice that we can find just in the announcements themselves. So, one of the institutional examples that I’ve really appreciated is CU Boulder. There, they have a very open and transparent process. So even within the announcements they’re making to perspective students and their current campus community, they’ve outlined first what their shared values and beliefs are, so what is guiding their decision-making. They’ve made really clear the timeline by which they’re going to make decisions, completely understanding that they’ve got to see what happens with the State of Colorado and the spread of the virus and so forth. But then I also think one piece of advice for all institutions, they’ve created a way for students and other community members to offer suggestions and opinions, and I really think that opportunity for folks to weigh in, to feel heard, to feel like they know who the decision makers are and that they’re taking multiple perspectives into account, if I were going to give advice on an announcement, I do think that that is at least one way to go.

0:08:55.0 DA: Yeah. And I think in terms of the plans, even though there’s a lot of uncertainty about the fall, it’s pretty clear that you’re not going to be able to bring all of your students back to your campus for the entire fall semester. There are just so many reasons why you have to bring some or for some parts on time so everyone’s going to need to be able to support students who are not on campus, or as you said, faculty who are not on campus for whatever reason. So I’m surprised it’s taken some institution so long to get to, we’re gonna have to provide hybrid or remote versions or great, better quality online versions of the courses that we have in the fall, even if we’re gonna bring students on campus. We gotta do both.

0:09:31.9 CH: That’s right. I think I would be pivoting the faculty energy and time, certainly in the month of May, but as we move into the summer, which is so critical to planning, two places: First, it is this notion of a high flex or a blended flexible model. I’ve been learning and listening to institutions talk about this model of instruction for years now. I think one of the things the pandemic has reminded me is it’s not that these are new ideas, it’s simply that old ideas that we innovated in pockets are getting more attention and we’re trying to figure out how to scale them. But I do think getting faculty to think through what is that hybrid flexible model for instruction.

0:10:09.7 DA: Could you say a bit more about what that means?

0:10:11.7 CH: Yeah, so for me, think about it now, you’ve got a faculty member who’s designed a course, some of the students may be in person in the classroom and that traditional experience, others might be fully taking the course online and some others, a third population, might be going in between those modalities. Now, that’s a pedagogical and instructional challenge, it’s a different way of teaching that many faculty are used to, but that to me, gives you the maximum amount of flexibility we’re gonna need, given all the uncertainty around the fall.

0:10:40.1 DA: I think you’re actually right and I think too many people are thinking about “How do we get through the fall term?”, but if you think long term, and we’ve already seen a lot of institutions you say recognizing that hybrid better meets the needs of many students. So students absolutely want face-to-face, they want experiential learning, but they also have complicated lives and they want to be able to access some of their course work online. So, even once we get through this pandemic, however long that takes, students are still gonna wanna have that flexibility to be sometimes face-to-face and sometimes remote.

0:11:07.4 CH: That’s right. We often quote a statistic that one in three undergraduate or one-third of undergraduate students take at least one course online, but I really think the more interesting trend is toward multi-modality and wanting to flexibly move in between different ways of learning as their life circumstances, or just personal preferences, ebb and flow.

0:11:27.4 DA: Yeah, it makes me think that we have historically had this model where your education has to be from our faculty on our campus, and there’s no way to learn outside of that, and once we start to recognize that you can be off-campus and learning from our faculty, or you can be on campus and learning from other faculty. It made me think, given the logistical challenges in redesigning all your courses for high quality online, are there opportunities to partner with institutions that already have great content they can share or with a consortium of other peer institutions to build that, so you’re not each building it yourself?

0:12:01.2 CH: And I might add that as a second area where your faculty could be focused this summer. I do believe extra institutional partnerships, we are going to have to move in that direction more aggressively than higher education has been willing to do in the past. So whether that is going back to online course sharing agreements that your system negotiated a decade ago, but have been essentially dormant and actually making sure that that is used in the next academic year, or it’s actually reaching out to new institutions or new partners. Coursera actually created a course matching algorithm where you could go in with anything in your course catalog and see, is there something within the Coursera catalog that meets those same learning outcomes? Now, I haven’t heard of any institutions actually going that route, but I think as we get closer to September, now is the time to have your faculty start exploring those partnerships. Don’t wait until we’re in an emergency moment again.

0:12:53.9 DA: Yeah. And you might have seen Alex Usher in Canada has been trying to put together a consortium of Canadian institutions to collaborate on this, and an important point he made is, this doesn’t mean that someone else will teach the course, it means that the consortium could generate, say, all the materials for a great chemistry course. Your faculty could still teach it, but they wouldn’t have to build and design all that material on their own, and that would dramatically reduce the cost and ideally improve the quality of the kind of instruction you could give online.

0:13:21.5 CH: That’s right. And I think if I were a university and college administrator, as you’re moving, whether it’s a Master course model or these extra institutional partnerships, it’s making sure you’re thinking through the implications for what does that mean for your faculty workload, for your teaching models, for tenure. There are really important questions faculty are going to raise, those should not stand in the way of innovation, especially right now, but you do need to be prepared to work with your faculty senate on those issues.

0:13:45.9 DA: Yeah, as I’m working with a lot of institutions on scenario planning, I’m playing out what would it mean to have to social distance in your dorm rooms or in your classroom. You have to take big lectures and make them into many smaller classes. And if you start to calculate the impact on your capacity, what if we could only house 40%-60% of the students we normally house? What if we only have physical space for half of the courses we normally run because they’ve gotta be in much bigger rooms now to social distance? Or, what if we’re now asking faculty to teach multiple small sections or to teach online and face-to-face sections? It seems to me while there are concerns about enrollment dropping, I think no matter how many students come back, we might not have the capacity to serve them in the traditional way, and we’re gonna have to find new ways to be able to provide those kinds of experiences to them, recognizing it won’t look like it did in the past.

0:14:38.1 CH: I think that leads me to the third area where I hope we see more faculty collaborating this summer is rethinking the general education curriculum, rethinking their capstone and seminar courses. We did research in the academic affairs forum a few years ago on this notion of the grand challenge and how students, especially those early in their career when they haven’t chosen a major yet, could get really engaged if they thought about a challenge or a problem that the institution was solving. I keep thinking the pandemic is the perfect moment for those kind of inquiry-based courses in the fall, where you bring in your incoming students and part of their first year curriculum is exploring the pandemic through various disciplinary lenses that could help them make a decision ultimately about their major. Now, that does require faculty development time and compensation this summer to figure out what that looks like and get it right, but I hope that there’s not just this false dichotomy we’re making between an online course and a face-to-face course, there’s lots of other ways that we could be innovating.

0:15:35.6 DA: Yeah. And it makes me think, I wonder if there are ways to engage students in experiential learning, even if they’re not on campus, so they’re taking this grand challenge course about the virus and they are volunteering in their community, or they’re doing online engagement with their local… There’s so many options to be helping and engage locally that would be a great way for students to both get experience and to simply have that sense that they’re applying the learning that they’re getting.

0:16:00.3 CH: I think that’s right. You know, David, one other area that I’ve been thinking about, so we’re talking about what is the next academic year going to look like, how important it is to restore confidence, but I do think that it’s not just about the classroom experience, it’s also gonna be how are students, are they willing to pay the same tuition rate before? And I understand the cabinets I’ve been working with really curious what this is going to mean, and are we gonna see students who are placing multiple deposits, but then in September asking some pretty tough questions about what they’re willing to pay for and what that looks like across different institutions. I’m curious what those conversations, especially around how we think about tuition, how we think about the question of what it is we’re actually asking students to pay for, what’s that been like with the campuses you’ve been working with?

0:16:44.5 DA: Yeah, and I think people have been a little bit bruised by the lawsuits and the petitions that students had in the spring refusing to pay or trying to get refunds back for their tuition for the spring saying, “You didn’t deliver what you promised me.” Obviously, it’s such a challenge for institutions because they’re spending more money, and so they really can’t afford to give up that revenue. Also, I think they’re saying they are delivering on the things that are possible to deliver on right now. I think that we’ll have to look different in the fall. Again, I think that students will not tolerate the decent but not excellent quality of emergency remote instruction that we had, and they’re gonna demand both better quality instruction, but also as you’re talking about more engaging programmatic content, or more different ways of engaging in community, even if that has to be virtual for some or all students.

0:17:33.8 DA: I think that there will be some students who will opt out that when I talk to our colleagues who run enrollment services, they’re saying, “Yeah, we’ve got pretty good numbers on deposits, but we don’t expect those to last. We expect that students are putting down multiple deposits, they’re gonna wait and see whether it’s possible to come back face-to-face.” There’s also, different students who will do different things. For some students, they’re committed to a residential experience and they can afford to wait, and either take a term or a year off. Other students are very excited to just get started with their education, however they can do that.

0:18:07.7 CH: That’s right. I have been thinking about the advice that I would give to institutions who are worried about these various drivers of tuition revenue, and really starting with who is it that you serve and what motivates them to enroll college, how much has that been impacted by the current moment. I think we arbitrarily picked the number 25, and if you’re 25 and older, you’re an adult student, and so therefore you behave a certain way, and if you’re younger than that, you behave a different way. I think the pandemic has shown us that is actually not all that helpful. There is the student for whom the cost of education is the most important determining factor, there’s the student for whom geography is the determining factor. So I think if you at this moment are talking with your enrollment management office and you don’t have a clear understanding of what are your student populations and how likely are they going to be price-sensitive, willing to travel, open to online instruction, that to me is the more productive conversation to be having about the fall.

0:19:03.3 DA: Yeah, and I think too many new stories are focused on those upper middle class students who are looking at highly selective institutions, but I know when I talk to our community college partners, some of our access-focused regional publics and privates, some of them are actually hoping for a potential bump in enrollment as students are looking for a local option that is lower cost and very much career allowing. So I don’t know that we’d see huge gains if I think that’s an option that for some students right now is absolutely the best option for them.

0:19:33.0 CH: Yeah, I do think that community colleges are also… Some of the institutions have made investments in online learning, and that is often under-reported. We’ll focus on larger four-year institutions who have done that, but community colleges often offer great online instruction, and have for years, and that may allow them to be seen not only as more affordable but more flexible in the next term.

0:19:55.2 DA: I am hearing though this challenge from community colleges and others around hands-on learning. So whether that are at labs or other kinds of internships, practicums, clinical rotations, those have been very difficult to do in the current environment, but those are absolutely essential for a number of different performing arts and other example. What are you hearing there in terms of how people can find ways to accommodate social distancing, but also make sure students are getting that hands-on experience?

0:20:21.1 CH: Well, I think that’s one of the interesting examples of if you can have some students, faculty members on campus in the fall, actually starting there. So where is it that you absolutely need to be in the lab? I think faculty have done great with the virtual labs and the simulations, but there’s a point at which including, and creditors are requiring in-person instruction. So start there, how many credit hours would you need to deliver and what are those disciplines? And if you work backwards from those students need to be on campus, then what does that mean for other courses that you’re teaching? It might give you a good way of prioritizing who needs the hybrid flexible model and who actually needs to wait. I think that’s why we’re seeing some folks experiment with term length as well, so if they create a fall one, fall two, some of those in-person moments can wait until later.

0:21:07.0 DA: Yeah, and I think though about the enormous burden this puts on faculty, staff and students. Universities aren’t used to this kind of uncertainty. Usually right now, they’d have all their students registered for the fall, they’d have their budget plan for the coming year, they’d be heading off in the summer to do research or whatever they do in the summer, and now they’re thinking about spending the entire summer planning, but not knowing what they’re planning for. And I think that’s both the benefit and the challenge of scenario planning is, you’re gonna have to make multiple plans because you don’t know which one’s gonna happen, and there are certain decisions you can make now, but frankly, a lot of them are gonna have to wait or you’re gonna have to decide what are the criteria by which I would make a decision when we get to the fall.

0:21:45.7 CH: Yeah, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about revenue, but on the cost side of the managing the cost of this crisis, I think important to realize many faculty are on nine-month contracts, so if we’re asking them to go above and beyond, we would always advise course development stipends to faculty teams who are transitioning a course to online or developing a new gen ed, so do you have those course development dollars available? And to the many other costs that institutions are now incurring, very important that they think through as they’re making decisions around furloughing, budgetary cuts, that that is connected to the instructional goals that need to be met before the fall.

0:22:23.1 DA: Yeah, it really is this coincidence of three crises at the same time, there’s this budget crisis and then potential enrollment crisis, and just the logistical crisis of the fall. And so asking people who are concerned about whether they have a job in the fall, who had been homeschooling their kids for the last six or seven weeks. Everyone is under stress, everyone is anxious about the fall, and they’re being asked to do things they’ve never done before. It is, I think, a testament to the commitment to the mission that people are still so focused on this and really trying to keep in front of their mind, we’ve gotta preserve this institution, we’ve gotta support our students.

0:23:00.2 CH: That’s right, and I think it goes back to where we started this conversation with announcement. So of course, we’ll probably across May, for those that have a June 1 deposit day, we will see additional announcements. But I will be watching in particular for those that turn inward and think about what their faculty and their staff and community need to hear from them right now. And importantly, making sure that they are continuing to update those announcements to students as we go and as things unfold.

0:23:29.3 DA: Yeah, it’s going to be an interesting summer, and I think an even more interesting fall.

0:23:33.2 CH: That’s right. I do appreciate though, and I think I’d leave with, if you have not made an announcement yet, so if you have not communicated, there are only a handful of institutions who can play that game, who can say we’re gonna wait until July or August, because they believe their brand or their attachment is such that the students will wait, I think really important that all other institutions are doing everything they can to explain their process and to engage students in it.

0:23:57.8 DA: Yeah, and that doesn’t mean they’ve got a promise certainty about something they can’t be certain about, it just means to be clear about how you will decide and when you’ll decide and what your priorities are.

0:24:05.5 CH: That’s right.

0:24:06.5 DA: So Carla, so much of the emphasis has been on, what are you gonna do for the fall, but obviously the fall is not the end of this. We were looking at some numbers the other day looking at, for example, public funding per student. It’s actually years three and four in the past couple recessions that had the lowest numbers, even things like net tuition revenue per student at private institutions. Again, it was years two or three or four that we lose, it wasn’t the first year. So, this is going to be a very long-term event, what are you thinking about what happens after the fall?

0:24:35.1 CH: That’s why I think it’s about reframing the conversation that campuses are having, it’s going from the emergency crisis response, so what are the decisions I am making today to weather today. To reframe this to a crisis recovery, and it returns to those fundamental principles of what do you want your general education curriculum to look like. Is this the moment to think bolder about the structure of the undergraduate degree? To rethink the credit hour, to re-think how many courses that you’re willing to accept credit for if a student transfers them in? These are not new conversations, but I would hate to see universities and colleges focus solely on the fall and miss this broader innovation opportunity. It’s gonna matter for equity, and I do absolutely think it’s gonna be the way that you either lift your brand so that you come out of this stronger as an institution that students trust and wanna be part of that innovation story, or you’re an institution that frankly was too focused, almost too scared about getting it wrong and didn’t have the boldness to do something new.

0:25:38.6 CH: And so I appreciate every institution I have seen that is taking this as an occasion to go back to first principles, How is this gonna support student success in equity, how is this gonna create a distinctive educational experience and realize that it’s about rethinking the entire curriculum and the entire learning because you’re right. Fall itself, let’s say, best case scenario, we all go back to campus, but then there’s a re-emergence and we all have to leave again. The way that you’ve been communicating with your students is whether they’re gonna trust you through that moment of the unforeseen or not.

0:26:09.8 DA: Yeah, so huge pressures, but also a lot of opportunities. And I was talking to one institution just earlier today, and the president said, “I’m confident we’re gonna come out stronger for this for all the challenges we’re going through.”

0:26:23.5 CH: It may just be the optimist in me, but I wanna go back to the, use this as a moment to go back to those strategic plans, make those documents come to life, think through where you can accelerate work that has been bogged down in committee or never felt particularly urgent. Maybe this is when we actually start to see the $10,000 degrees and the three-year bachelors and the Pathways Programs and the partnerships. You and I have studied those things for more than a decade and higher ed leaders have been doing them for longer than that, so maybe this is finally the moment that some of that breaks through.

0:26:56.4 DA: Yeah. Great. Well, thank you, Carla.


0:27:06.9 MP: Thanks for listening. Join us next week on Office Hours when Carla is back, and this time joined by EAB’s Dean of Enrollment Services, Madeleine Rhyneer, to talk through some of the strategies to yield your fall 2020 class. Thanks again for listening. From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish.

More Podcasts


The Early Impacts of COVID-19 on Higher Ed

Carla Hickman and Dr. David Attis discuss the immediate effects of COVID-19 on higher ed, as well as…

4 Unique Leadership Challenges Posed by the Pandemic

In part one of this two-part discussion, EAB experts share four reasons why the coronavirus pandemic is a…

How Colleges Can Plan for and Adapt to Campus Crises

Learn how college administrators can use this crisis to strengthen leadership skills—and how schools can build greater organizational…