Seven Thoughts from the Fall Semester

As I write this post on the first Friday in September, much of American higher education has either already returned to fall courses or will do so in the coming week. My calendar is completely out of whack right now on account of being out of the classroom this year due to department chair duties. Thankfully, I still have my small army of dissertation students and questions from other students in my department to keep that connection with students strong.

I returned to campus last month for the first time since March and things looked a little different, as the pictures below show. College campuses around the country have similar features, yet the number of coronavirus cases has spiked at a number of institutions. My running Twitter thread has kept track of colleges flipping online, and the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College and Middlebury College student Benjy Renton have done great jobs doing more systematic tracking.

I did Twitter threads to start July and August to share some of my real-time thoughts about the coronavirus pandemic and what I expected to see in higher education in the coming months. In that spirit, here are seven thoughts as September and a new academic year both begin.

(1) Colleges may flip classes fully online, but it will be hard to get students out of college towns. One of the scariest data points from the last month was at Illinois State University, which was forced to move most of its fall classes online back in early August after the federal government took away its testing supplies. But students still returned to the community (off-campus leases are often signed well before the new academic year begins) and now nearly 1,200 students have tested positive for the virus. Colleges can do little to change the behavior of off-campus students.

It’s also not easy to send on-campus students back home at this point. While some universities that switched to online fall semesters after bringing students back have sent the majority of students back home, that raises serious concerns about spreading the virus all over the surrounding area. The University of Iowa and Iowa State University have two of the highest numbers of positive cases right now, so emptying out residence halls would spread the virus all over Iowa and well into the Chicago suburbs. Dr. Fauci recommends that colleges not send students back home, and that makes a lot of sense. But are colleges well set up for quarantines that definitely resemble a cross between a minimum-security prison and a monastery?

(2) This weekend is key for colleges hoping to have in-person instruction. Labor Day weekend has traditionally served as an opportunity for college students living away from home to return home and see their families and friends. And other students can use the weekend to socialize and take a quick vacation. I’m really concerned about this weekend being a series of superspreader events, both among students spreading the virus in other communities and students catching the virus from each other on campus. Some colleges have responded by holding classes on Labor Day, but will students show up? The week or two of cases after Labor Day will say a lot about what the rest of the fall semester looks like.

(3) Enrollment as a whole looks okay, but stay tuned for the full story. I see a lot of press releases from colleges advertising record enrollment, and I also see news articles about colleges being well below expectations. The National Student Clearinghouse reported that summer enrollment was largely flat, but with big differences across student and institutional types. I would be cautious about colleges claiming large enrollment increases right now, since net tuition revenue is the real name of the game. And with withdrawals quite likely this fall, current numbers may still differ from end-of-fall numbers.

(4) Will hyflex courses stay the course? Colleges around the country made large bets on hybrid flexible courses, in which some students attend in person and others attend online to accommodate different student preferences and to maintain social distancing. Teaching in a mask and behind Plexiglas is enough of a transition, and adding a new teaching method to this could be a challenge. Will students (especially those living off campus) want to come to campus half of the time for this experience, or will they push for fully online classes? And what will faculty want? I hope that the inevitable bugs get worked out quickly, but a compressed semester makes that tougher.

(5) Budget cuts keep coming. Seemingly every day brings a slow drip of announced budget cuts, furloughs, and layoffs in higher education, ranging from the NCAA to New Jersey’s community colleges and everywhere in between. My skeptical self expects a number of these announcements on this Friday before a long holiday weekend, but they will continue to come as COVID-related expenses rise and students withdraw from courses during the semester. As colleges have to ramp up testing and safety procedures to keep students safe, at what point do they save money by trying to keep as many students as possible off campus?

(6) Closures are still a concern. I’m frankly amazed that July and August did not bring at least several closures of small private nonprofit colleges. It’s clear that they are trying to stay the course with in-person classes and students in the residence halls, but I also worry about their ability to afford the safety measures and testing needed to keep students safe. (A really cool test of wastewater for the virus costs about $1,200, and I don’t even want to know about hand sanitizer budgets.) My biggest concern is that a small college has an outbreak, runs out of money, and has to send students home instead of allowing them to quarantine.

(7) The spring semester will eventually come, but nobody knows what it will look like. I’m still hopeful that a vaccine will come sometime in early 2021, but that is far from a guarantee. (And will people be willing to take the vaccine?) Colleges are spending nearly all of their time and energy getting through the fall, but planning for spring will start to occur later in the month. Expect colleges to plan for a later start to allow for more time for a vaccine or for the flu season to pass, but that will wreak havoc with student schedules, faculty and staff contracts, and could be an issue at colleges without much air conditioning. For right now, the name of the game is TBD.

My goal for the fall semester is to take care of my students, staff, and faculty as well as possible while focusing on the most important elements of my job. It’s impossible to do everything right now, and we all need to recognize that (especially those of us who evaluate others). On that note, blogging will likely be quite limited this fall. But I will do my best to jump in if something important happens. Stay healthy and safe, everyone!

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.

3 thoughts on “Seven Thoughts from the Fall Semester”

  1. Thank you for this update. This is one of the few places to go for good information.

    “I’m frankly amazed that July and August did not bring at least several closures of small private nonprofit colleges.” Agreed — but where is this information available? (Would it be reflected in OPEID numbers that are no longer valid?) Or, are there good proxies for this?
    It doesn’t look like anyone has had time (or, possibly the inclination) to digest the Student Loan Disbursement figures, including FY 2018-2019 versus FY 2019-2020 YE, and Summer 2019 versus Summer 2020 numbers.

    It may very well be that CARES, and Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) and Coronavirus Relief Funds are off-setting Spring and Summer 2020 COVID-19 losses. I would love to see some excellent graphic presentations of this data from different perspectives, including institution type, losses versus federal COVID assistance.

    1. The best data source for closures is Federal Student Aid’s closed school database, and no main campuses are listed as closing that weren’t already announced months ago. The student loan disbursement figures probably overstate losses to colleges because of how loans are used more than grants for living expenses.

      It’s my sense that the various relief funds are helpful, but aren’t offsetting all losses. But I would love to see more institutional data on that.

  2. I wanted to comment on the NCS Enrollment data from my perspective as an instructor.
    Unless things on campus have changed a lot, I wouldn’t trust enrollment/withdrawl numbers.

    Considering the massive March 2020 “pivot,” none of this attrition is reflected in the NCS numbers.
    My experience as an instructor was that the administration was indifferent to when students stopped showing up, or for how long.

    If would make a BIG difference to me if data on individual school enrollments were available. Has anyone else had research experience with enrollments?

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