Who Takes the Blame for an Online Fall?

An academic summer unlike any other is rapidly drawing to a close as students and colleges prepare for the start of fall classes in just a few weeks. Not surprisingly, the number of colleges abandoning their plans for a mainly in-person term is continuing to increase as coronavirus cases also increase in much of the country. These colleges are still allowing the most vulnerable students to live on campus and offer hands-on courses in person, but shifting everything else online.

While a growing number of college students were already taking at least some online classes prior to March 2020, few colleges want to voluntarily move entirely online. The financial hit of having no students on campus can be massive; as an example, the University System of Georgia is projecting a loss of nearly half a billion dollars if campuses cannot reopen to students this fall. Colleges also have to worry about political pushback from donors, alumni, conservative state legislators, and the Trump administration as they make their decision.

In the past week, at least a dozen four-year colleges shifted away from their plans earlier this summer for in-person classes to the new reality of a mainly online fall. As I have been processing everything that has been going on (I probably refresh this Google search more than I should), I have been fascinated by how colleges are messaging their closures and in some cases trying to shift the blame to others. Let’s dive into some strategies that colleges are taking.

Blame the Virus

Most of these announcements mentioned an increase in the prevalence of the virus, which is the reason that I expected colleges to use when they were forced to change plans. Below are two good examples of this type of announcement—Morehouse College (top) and Rhode Island College (bottom). This strategy works well for early announcements, and I have no objections to colleges saying that public health conditions will not allow an opening with enough time for a proper online pivot. But given how hard it is to bend the infection curve, blaming the virus looks silly if a college waits until two weeks before the fall semester to make its plans.

Blame the Government

Other colleges have tried to shift the blame to state and federal officials. Lyon College took a subtle shot at state and federal agencies’ unwillingness to set out detailed plans for colleges to follow in their announcement.

In a pair of Friday afternoon announcements, Claremont McKenna College and Fresno Pacific University took clear shots at the governor of California for not approving colleges to resume in-person operations by this point in time. Claremont even felt it suitable to italicize the word “absence” in their announcement.

Fresno Pacific’s announcement is less pugnacious, but still emphasizes that they spent millions of dollars in a failed effort to reopen—and are spending less than that on improving online classes.

College leaders may be publicly blaming governors or public health officials for not allowing students to return to campus, but they are likely secretly happy to blame someone else for making a difficult decision. However, governors also don’t want to be blamed for blocking the reopening of campuses. If governors delay approval long enough without officially closing campuses, colleges will have to make the decision on their own. The governor could then grant approval to reopen right before the start of the fall term, but that would be too late for many colleges to shift plans. Nobody wants to take the blame for the inevitable decision.

Blame Other Colleges??

And just for fun, here is a snippet of Harrisburg University’s announcement. Community colleges and HBCUs have been leading the way all along in making timely decisions, but other colleges clearly want to wait to follow the pack. There is a lot of comfort in that approach, but it threatens colleges’ ability to offer high-quality online classes by waiting too long to make the decision.

I still expect a whole bunch of colleges to switch to a mainly online fall in the next week to ten days. Red-state public universities and moderately selective private colleges will be the last to announce their actual fall plans due to concerns about retribution from public officials and the possibility of losing students to other colleges that wait a few days longer to tip their hands. But the trend of the virus in much of the country and a rapidly approaching fall semester will force many colleges to issue statements like the ones that I shared above.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

6 thoughts on “Who Takes the Blame for an Online Fall?”

  1. Here is a well-considered argument for reopening — based on current Covid data and characteristics.
    The graphics are pretty amazing, I think.
    Here is a link (from the report) that specifies the lost learning from online, and closures.

  2. There are no well-considered arguments for reopening unless you’re willing to see people die and suffer long-term disabilities for it. It’s as simple as that. If you are willing to see people die and suffer long-term disabilities for it, Glen, I’d like you to name the people you believe are expendable. It’ll have to be a good long list.

    We will likely have increasingly good vaccines over the next two or three years, at which point people will be able to come back to physical classrooms safely. The people hurt by diminishment of educational opportunity in the meantime can be helped with money, which buys time, and understanding. If you’re not willing to spend money and be understanding, and would rather just go for the death and disability, then you ought to say so.

    1. Thank you. The problem is that the “no risk” option is equally untenable. For the moment, let’s not consider vaccines just yet, and see where “zero-risk” leads us.

      Following Covid-observations from sociologist Randall Collins (see section on Assemblies and Audiences, link below), we know that non-participation for 1-to-2 years is fatal for social institution that derive their legitimacy and “presence” from solidarity and active participation, and co-presence. http://sociological-eye.blogspot.com/2020/07/sociology-of-masks-and-social-distancing.html

      Classroom outcomes are not immune to these Covid-effects since they completely depend on social interaction.
      The McKinsey report (see link above) attests to the losses that are, even now, accumulating for children affected by social distancing and closed schools.
      Schools are not light switches, to paraphrase Karen Gross. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/04/09/higher-institutions-should-start-planning-now-reopening-fall-it-wont-be-easy Karen’s focus on trauma and what she calls the “Corona gap” gives context to closed-school effects. Once they are turned off, hysteresis effects kick in, so this boils down to the same Covid problem for the economy, which has been sacrificed to minimize hospitalizations and deaths, and is unlikely to “bounce back”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hysteresis_(economics)

      You may not recognize where the zero-risk option leads — we are watching as parts and pieces of our social institution crumble and fade. Once the credentialing system (primary->secondary->post-secondary) succumbs, what social institution will replace it? What comes next?

      Already, we are seeing talk of micro-schools, pods and home schooling resurgence to replace the public school system. “What comes next for higher education?” The answer to that question depends on our understanding of the rise of the credential markets and their monopolies, the history of hiring practices, and the development of the occupational structure and labor markets over time. But, even then, the question remains: “What comes next?”

  3. I don’t know if anyone saw this week’s Barrons article on “Time for a Crash in College Tutition” 8-24-2020 A11.

    In the article, Jack Hough talks about a higher-ed restructuring that should have happened “a hundred years ago, but hasn’t”. Such a restructuring, according to Hough, “slashes the cost of higher education, and expands its reach.”

    But in his email to me, Prof. Aswath Damodaran (NYU Stern) disputes this — even though he is quoted in the original article!
    “One thing that needs to factor into any story about education is that tuition is not and has never been a market set number. As a consequence, bubbles and corrections to bubbles have no simple mechanism to work through into price. Consequently, I think that the pain will show up *not* as lower tuition (as would be the case with a market-set price) but with more college failures, more desperation for donation money from survivors and more pleas for a government bailout or protection (perhaps in the form of government-funded tuition).”

    1. Summer data will be available in late October, assuming we are still defining the summer quarter of each year as July/Aug/Sept. FAFSAs, after an early dip during Apr/May, have caught up. Award Year 2021 disbursements are on schedule with where 2020 was at the same time. (“On schedule” and “caught up” means slightly-down, as both disbursements and FAFSA volumes have been declining steadily since AY 2010.) As far as final results for AY 2020, which ended June 30, it takes a couple years for all the adjustments and cancellations to shake out. In addition, those activities were largely set-in-stone prior to the pandemic.

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