It’s the billion-dollar question. Will COVID-19 be under control by September, and will colleges and universities be able to resume normal life? Everyone wants to know, especially the high school seniors now deciding where to commit. After months, even years, of research, preparation, and applying, they’ve made it to the end—only to find another huge question mark standing in their way.
It’s disappointing to say the least. To make matters worse, as of today, only a tiny handful of schools have decided one way or the other about the fall, and even those decisions could change. Every college and university desperately wants to resume as normal. They just don’t know if they will be able to do so.
Colleges want to resume per usual by next fall as eagerly as the rest of us do. The list of reasons is pretty infinite, but here are some of the big ones.
The biggest concern for university leaders is that the vast majority of American colleges pride themselves on offering a residential community of student scholars, personal interaction with professors, hands-on research materials and experiences, in-person advising, and a vibrant social scene of clubs, sports, and events. Even if colleges hold all their classes online, vast swaths of their appeal will be lost if students aren’t able to be physically on campus.
There are obviously financial reasons colleges want to open, too. As prospective students no doubt know, tuition is only part of the cost of college: most students also pay for housing and food. Of course, without in-person classes, colleges won’t be able to charge for those offerings. It’s also not clear if they will be able to ask for the same tuition if classes are online. Much is lost without in-person learning, and some students may not be willing to pay the high cost of college if they can’t go to the lab or library and interact with their peers.
It’s already true that colleges are struggling to convince students to come in the fall. Yield rates (the percentage of admitted students who ultimately decide to enroll) are already down, and fewer students are applying for financial aid for next year. If colleges officially move online in the fall, administrators worry that these numbers will fall even further.
Additionally, students aren’t the only ones who want colleges to be open. For millions of faculty and administrators, universities are their workplaces, and they would much rather be there in person than have to teach and work remotely. An online semester also means pay cuts, layoffs, hiring freezes, and more. No organization wants that for its employees.
For these reasons, many universities are strongly signaling that they have every intention of reopening. Purdue University suggested it would separate classes by age and impose careful social distancing measures on campus. Brown University has created a task force to prepare for reopening; President Christina Paxson told current and future community members she was “cautiously optimistic” about an in-person fall semester.
Of course, even the schools actively planning to be open in the fall are layering their messaging with caveats and what-ifs. The truth is that no one knows what the state of national and global health will be in August 2020. And this uncertainty is driving everyone nuts.
For one, the same thing that makes colleges so exciting and appealing for students is exactly the reason the global health emergency may keep them from reopening: their physical closeness. The dorms, the dining halls, the intimate seminars—all are essential to the traditional college experience. But given the evidence that the novel coronavirus spreads most effectively through physical contact, the very nature of college life meant it couldn’t persist this spring. It’s why students were sent home, and no one truly knows whether or when it will be safe for them to return to campus.
It’s also true that this decision isn’t entirely up to university leadership. Both private and public institutions are bound to state law, so if a state’s governor says that universities must remain closed, there’s not much anyone can do about it. State advisories about social distancing are thus a huge X-factor for colleges and universities. Even the best laid reopening plans could be disrupted by a state or federal order that colleges must remain online.
There are also questions of equity. Some universities have been criticized for suggesting that, because the virus has not proved lethal in healthy individuals under 35, colleges should be free to reopen carefully. After all, the majority of college students are young, but not all of them. And what will even a structured reopening mean for immunocompromised students, older faculty and staff, and the surrounding communities?
So far, colleges are doing what they can to push off this decision. Many have extended the dates by which students need to commit, while others are promising to make a preliminary decision at some point in the next few weeks. Some are contemplating a delayed start rather than moving the entire semester online. Others are considering a block plan, a hybrid curriculum, special programs for first-years, and more—anything to avoid going fully online.
Yet with all the caveats flying around, it’s not clear anyone will say anything concrete until much later in the summer. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that we don’t know enough to say anything with certainty.
So, if you’re a current senior in the Class of 2020, what does this uncertainty mean for you? We know you’re sick of hearing it, but—no one really knows! Just like these colleges, you’ll have to weigh your options and make the right personal choice. Ask yourself:
Ultimately, only you can decide what’s right for you. But whatever you decide, don’t let this uncertainty overshadow how much you’ve accomplished in the past four years and how proud you should be of successfully completing the college application process. No matter what happens, we are proud of you!
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