Should Colleges reopen in the Fall?

This opinion piece was first published in Medium (

By Claudia Neuhauser, Ph.D., Associate Vice President of Research and Technology Transfer, Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston; and Brian Herman, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering and former Vice President for Research, University of Minnesota and University of Texas Health, San Antonio.

The coronavirus pandemic hit, well, not exactly without warning, but not with a whole lot of time to prepare. Within days, mid-spring semester, universities and colleges pivoted from the traditional in-class lectures to online education. Millions of students, many of whom paid high tuition, all of a sudden, found themselves kicked out of dorms and back home sitting in their childhood bedrooms listening to lectures on Zoom.

This is not the experience they paid for, and many students and their parents demanded (and received) partial refunds for the spring semester. They certainly don’t want that experience in the fall semester and pay the tuition and fees that come with the full campus experience.

The impact of this pandemic is not just on a university’s education mission. We saw this spring semester that every part of an institution was affected. Research universities shut down their research operations for weeks, and they are only now starting to reopen slowly. Athletic events were canceled, including March Madness, which resulted in a loss of $375 million in funds distributed to eligible universities by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Other services, such as parking, dormitories, food services, student health services, and college stores, suddenly found themselves without customers. If students cannot return to campus in the fall semester, these services will run significant deficits, adding to the woes of presidents.

An impossible choice

Fall semester is only three months away, and university and college presidents are now faced with what seems an impossible choice. As Gordon Gee, President of West Virginia University, recently stated, “[i]f it was simply based on science, we would keep everything shut down until we have a vaccine and until it’s working. But I don’t feel that that’s feasible, either economically or socially, and certainly not educationally. We will open, but it will be different.”

If campuses stay shut in the fall, the financial impact will be substantial. Higher education is big business: there are 3.8 million employees in postsecondary institutions in the U.S. and about 20 million students. Institutions are planning for a decline in tuition revenue in the ballpark of 20% based on estimates on the decline in enrollment due to many students contemplating a gap year. On top of this, state colleges and universities expect large declines in state appropriations given the impact of the coronavirus on state budgets. Except for all but the wealthiest institutions, dipping into endowment funds to make up for financial shortfalls is not an option.

If campuses open in the fall, it is unlikely that they can avoid having regular outbreaks, especially if they are in urban areas where the virus is present. The close proximity and the frequent interactions of thousands of students and the large number of faculty and staff provide an almost ideal breeding ground for the virus, like nursing homes, cruise ships, large cities, and prisons. Any outbreak runs the risk of serious illness and even death among faculty, students, and staff.

This leaves colleges and universities in the position to have to decide between revenue and human lives. This feels like “Sophie’s Choice.” But choose we must.

Waiting is not an option

“We’re just in the second inning,” as Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said in an interview with MinnPost in mid-May. We don’t have a vaccine, and even guardedly optimistic estimates won’t get us one in the volume required to vaccinate a large percentage of the population until the second half of 2021. And we are far from herd immunity, the 60–70% of the population required to be immune to avoid further uncontrollable outbreaks, something that in the absence of a vaccine can only be achieved by having 60–70% of the population becoming infected with the coronavirus.

Reaching herd immunity will take a good while. We can do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation to get some rough estimates. If we assume a steady state of 50,000 new cases per day in the U.S. at the current testing rate, which is higher than at any point in time so far, we would have about 2,500 daily deaths due to COVID-19, an increase of about 30% of the average number of daily deaths in the U.S. pre-COVID-19. If the death rate is around 1%, the actual daily new infections would be around 250,000. Herd immunity occurs at about 60–70% of the population. That’s about 250 million people. At this rate, it would take us about 1,000 days to get there. A thousand days. That’s almost three years.

Colleges and universities have realized that waiting is not an option. And by now, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, about two-thirds of colleges and universities have made the decision to open their doors in the fall. They are developing plans on how to reopen while reducing the risks to students, faculty, and staff. Different modes of course delivery with combinations of online and face-to-face teaching, reduced classroom density, frequent testing, isolating infected students, keeping everyone socially distant in class and during meals, or even beating the virus by compressing the fall semester such that it ends before Thanksgiving are all hopeful but unproven strategies they contemplate to return to some semblance of normalcy on campus in the fall.

In a Washington Post opinion piece, Purdue University President Mitch Daniels stated that their plan for reopening would include a less dense campus (one-third of staff required to work remotely, classroom redesign to allow social distancing, lower dormitory occupancy and offering large enrollment classes online as well as in-person). They also plan to test widely and employ contact tracing of infected individuals (which others have deemed challenging due to accuracy of the testing systems, individual rights violations of contact tracing, and the cost of doing this for Purdue’s population of 45,000 students). Most hopeful is that Purdue’s students will assume responsible behavior that will protect them, the faculty, staff, their families, and other contacts from virus spread. Given the preliminary experience with this year’s spring break and recent crowds of young individuals seen upon reopening of the economy, this sounds very aspirational.

In a New York Times editorial, the President of the University of Notre Dame reasoned that societal history of imposing risks upon ourselves and others morally justifies the in-person experience that college offers. The University of Notre Dame is, therefore, bringing students back to campus this fall. In addition to testing, contact tracing, quarantine, social distancing, and masks, their fall semester will begin two weeks early with no fall break and students finishing their in-person part of the semester by Thanksgiving. The University of Notre Dame does believe that athletes can return and perform sports safely, but that athletic spectators are not viable at this time.

The stakes are high. An institution that opens its doors for face-to-face instruction in the fall will have to weigh the legal and reputational liability. Institutions already face class action lawsuits over returns of tuition and fees for services not rendered as originally promised. It is likely that universities and colleges will be sued by their students, staff, and faculty when they fall ill with COVID-19 as a result of coming back on campus. Never mind the reputational risk an institution faces when (and not if) it has a coronavirus outbreak that results in the death of faculty, students, or staff.

There are only three months left to prepare the campus for a very different student experience, and train faculty and instructors to become more effective in an online or hybrid teaching environment. Large lecture classes would need to be converted to videos, ideally with the help of instructional designers, which students would be watching online. New forms of engagement would need to be developed for those who are taking primarily online classes. The flipped classroom approach could be an effective model with class time being spent in small groups to work on group assignments that build on the lectures. Only small classes could be held face-to-face in large classrooms to meet social distancing rules.

The logistics of having students on campus and ensuring their safety, in particular for large universities, are insurmountable. The key to opening safely is to reduce the number of students on campus while still delivering quality education to everyone enrolled. We offer three approaches that, in combination, could reduce the dilemma in Sophie’s Choice to an acceptable level by drastically reducing the density of people on campus during the semester.

Responsible individuals only

The demographics of today’s students enrolled in higher education institutions could make it easier to open, not for all but for those who can be expected to behave responsibly. The typical student is not the fresh high school graduate, eager to have a traditional college experience. No doubt, these students exist. But only about 10% of the students fall into this demographic group where the propensity to think they are invincible is particularly high. About 15% of students are enrolled in post-baccalaureate programs, which include Master’s, doctoral, and professional programs. These students can be expected to behave responsibly. Among the undergraduate population, the typical student today is also very different from the past, according to Higher Learning Advocates: 37% are older than 25, 64% work while in college, 24% have children of their own, 49% are financially independent, 40% attend college part-time, and only 13% live on campus. This group can also likely be trusted to behave more responsibly. Being on campus should still be voluntary, though, to allow each individual to weigh the risks themselves.

The riskiest group of students to bring back on campus is freshmen and sophomores. They are most likely asymptomatic if infected with the coronavirus and are most likely to socialize with large numbers of other students, and so are the ideal vectors to spread the disease. They also make up a large percentage of the student body on traditional campuses, in particular the large research universities. It might be counterintuitive to ask freshmen and sophomores to stay away from campus for most of the semester, as many educators view these two years as particularly important in shaping a student. But not having freshmen and sophomores on campus decreases the likelihood of a major outbreak that would force a campus to shut down again for the remainder of the semester. To make this more palatable for students and their parents, institutions would need to offer education at much-reduced tuition and would only charge fees for services rendered.

Freshmen and sophomores would take their lectures online and participate in small online learning groups that are mentored by upper-division undergraduate students and graduate students, thus providing meaningful small-group experiences that enhance their learning. They would only be asked to come on campus for a few weeks to take laboratory or creative classes that cannot be done online. These classes would need to be scheduled every day of the week to accommodate all activities in a short period of time at a reduced density.

There are steps institutions can take to reduce the risk of infection when bringing students on campus for these short periods of time. Students might be asked to self-isolate for two weeks prior to coming on campus, stay in dorms while on campus, and focus solely on their education. While on campus, they would be grouped into small cohorts and stay with their cohort the entire time to reduce the number of contacts they have. Those who do not want to come on campus would take their lab courses or other courses that cannot be taught online at a later time when the pandemic is over.

Some research universities are already experimenting with selectively bringing students back on campus as they reopen their research. Most of these are graduate students who work in labs on their research. Labs are small and largely isolated communities on campus where an outbreak can be controlled. This would continue in the fall semester, even if their didactic education moves online.

We would also only ask those faculty and staff to return on campus who are willing to do so. Those over age 65 are at higher risk for severe illness. While only about 6% of working adults are age 65 or over, among faculty, this figure is 13%. Age is not the only risk factor. About 45% of the U.S. population is at higher risk for all the reasons that make COVID-19 a more serious disease. Faculty and staff are not exempt from these other illnesses that increase risk, or they may care for someone who is at higher risk.

Incentives to stay away from campus

Incentives, like reduced tuition and elimination of fees for services that students cannot use when remote, may further reduce the number of students on campus at any given time. Such a reduction would also solve the problem of what to do with students in between classes. Anyone who has spent time on a large university campus has seen overcrowded libraries, study halls, and hallways where students study between classes. It would not be practical to send students off campus between classes, but there is also not enough space on campus to let them study there and follow social distancing rules.

While most students attend college in the state they reside, many students leave

their home state and attend a college or university as an out-of-state student. The additional travel carries risks, especially if students return home over weekends or breaks. Colleges and universities may, therefore, want to collaborate on transfer agreements to encourage students to enroll for courses locally instead of crossing state lines to attend the college they want to graduate from. A model for this already exists. It is called the National Student Exchange, which is a group of about 160 colleges in the U.S. and Canada that exchange students every year among their institutions.

Colleges and universities would also need to curtail social events. Fraternities and sororities would need to remain closed. There would be no Friday night parties or other large crowd weekend activities. Athletic events may not happen on campus either, at least not with spectators. Those who are on campus would need to practice social distancing at all times. Education would not only be front and center, it would be the only thing students would experience while on campus. This may also reduce the desire to spend a whole semester on campus.

Fall instruction would be largely online

It should be clear by now that all courses would need to have an online component. There could be some long-term financial advantages to some colleges and universities if they can break into the online market with new offerings. In a recent New York Times editorial, Hans Taparia suggests that colleges take advantage of the Coronavirus disruptions to their current business model and “create ‘parallel’ online degrees for all their core degree programs. By doing so, universities could expand their reach by thousands, creating the economies of scale to drop their costs by tens of thousands.” They cite Georgia Tech and the University of Illinois as a successful example of this approach, which is really a hybrid approach to higher education — in person for those wanting that option and online for those who prefer that choice for delivery of educational material.

Regardless of any long-term financial advantages, during the pandemic, colleges and universities will not have the option to forgo online education since they need to prepare for the situation when the campus needs to be closed again due to a major outbreak or when an instructor is diagnosed with COVID-19 or is required to self-quarantine, and no replacement instructor can be found. In these cases, every course would need to be able to move online entirely at a moment’s notice. And students who show COVID-19 symptoms may have to stay away from campus for an extended period of time during which they would want to participate online in their courses.

There are courses that cannot be offered online, and colleges and universities need to prioritize which courses need to be offered face-to-face. Science labs belong to this group, but so are studio classes in the arts. Many professional degrees in the health sciences require hands-on learning to gain competency, and engineering degrees that are ABET-accredited must offer laboratory experiences. These kinds of classes should receive priority for classrooms and laboratory or studio spaces and need to be scheduled first, taking into account that social distancing may require many more sessions than under normal circumstances.

Smaller courses, in particular graduate-level courses, could also be taught face-to-face with an online option for those who need to work, take care of their children, or may have other living situations that would make it more difficult to come on campus every day. Those who are allowed to come on campus can then choose between remote and face-to-face education if they sign up for a course that has a face-to-face option.

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