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The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted nearly everything about higher education, from admissions and enrollment to study abroad to new faculty and staff hires. But one question looms larger than any other in the minds of college leaders right now: will we meet in person for the Fall 2020 semester?
No one knows for sure whether it will be safe to congregate in dorm rooms, dining halls, and lecture halls in September. But the choice that leaders make about whether or not to open their colleges and universities is likely to affect their schools' financial futures. If they plan for online learning, enrollment may drop; if they meet in person and a second wave of COVID-19 forces them to close, they'll face a public relations nightmare.
The result of all this uncertainty is that most colleges and universities are currently sticking to a wait-and-see approach. However, as the fall semester draws closer, schools are facing increasing pressure to explain what they expect will happen on their campuses this autumn. As a result, many colleges have released tentative plans.
While every university is slightly different, their statements about Fall 2020 largely break down into four broad categories, which we've explained below.
At the time of this writing, approximately two-thirds of American colleges and universities have stated that they are planning to meet in person in the fall. That outcome is the one colleges most hope will happen because it will mean the least disruption to their enrollment, funding, plans, and future. It's not guaranteed, but it's certainly the most popular plan.
Colleges that are planning for in-person meetings have released various metrics by which they will decide whether a campus is safe and proposed a range of ideas for how to keep students, staff, and faculty safe on campus. Regular screenings, social distancing in public spaces, and greater health capacity are all elements of a plan for in-person learning.
While the majority of residential colleges and universities are signaling that they hope to reconvene in person in the fall, a minority have already stated that they will be meeting online in the fall. These schools, including the entire California State University system, feel that the dangers of meeting in person are too high given their campus populations.
By and large, the universities in this category are public universities and community colleges with a significant number of adult learners and students from minority backgrounds, who are at greater risk of facing serious complications from COVID-19. Many of these schools also have a large existing online presence and lower tuition rates, meaning they have less to lose by not reconvening in person.
In recent days, more universities have come forward with so-called "hybrid" models, meaning a mix of in-person and online learning. Many of these schools are promising incoming first-year students that they can at least have their first semester or quarter in person before switching them to online learning to allow upperclassmen to return.
Given the financial pressure on colleges to make sure admitted students actually enroll, they hope the hybrid model will get students in the door in the fall, at which point they can hold onto them until it's safe for everyone to resume in-person learning. Whether students will go for this plan, on the other hand, is still to be determined.
The vast majority of universities are hedging their bets about what the fall will bring, and some are more transparent about this uncertainty than others. Some are using this time to lay out a range of scenarios that might unfold, usually including some definite plans (like an earlier start date) and a few different plans for in-person, online, and hybrid learning.
As in the hybrid models, many of these scenarios involve different plans for students at different stages of their education. Many universities are proposing slightly different plans for first-year students, more advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and visiting students. Exactly what they decide, however, will depend on the actual public health circumstances in the fall.
Finally, a handful of colleges and universities have remained mum about what they plan to do in the fall, preferring to wait for more information before they even begin to suggest what they are thinking. In the face of such uncertainty, they say, any plan that they might put forward now could easily become obsolete or irrelevant as the public health situation develops.
Ultimately, the college landscape in the fall is likely to be a strange patchwork of individual decisions. Commentators have already pointed out how strange it would be for San Diego State University to be closed while its neighbor, University of California San Diego, opens for in-person learning. Nevertheless, because universities will have to make these decisions with imperfect and incomplete information, such incongruous occurrences are likely to occur.
You can read about how COVID-19 is affecting college admissions broadly here. If you are interested in learning more about what individual schools are planning, you can find an up-to-date list in The Chronicle of Higher Education.