The baseline requirements for reopening colleges and universities are similar to those for reopening K-12 schools: The U.S. must contain the virus before students and faculty can safely return to campus. With confirmed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths on the rise in many regions, the fall semester is far from certain.
Many of the questions that K-12 schools must consider are the same for colleges and universities, but higher education’s business model presents a different problem than public K-12 education. Both publicly funded and private colleges depend on tuition, donations, endowments, and revenue from sports, and many college students go into debt to get their degrees — unlike public K-12 education that’s free for students and funded by taxes. Even before the pandemic, many colleges and universities were operating on thin margins.
The reopening question, then, is not only how to make campuses safe for students, faculty, and staff — it’s how to make the experience valuable enough that students will continue to pay for it. (If students are asking for their money back after half a semester of remote instruction, it’s unlikely that college campuses will be able to stay closed indefinitely.)
After exploring the known factors, the tradeoffs, and the path forward for K-12 schools, we’re asking the same questions about plans to reopen colleges and universities.
What do we know?
The risk for young adults is low — but not insignificant.
- People in their 20s and 30s account for an increasing share of new coronavirus infections; testing has increased among this group, and younger adults are more likely to venture out as different regions reopen.
- Data shows the hospitalization rate for COVID-positive 20-somethings is under 4%, compared with more than 20% for people over 60. For people in their 20s and 30s without underlying health conditions, the fatality rate is about 0.1%.
- But a recent study found that one in three young adults are at risk of experiencing severe COVID-19 — driven in part by higher rates of smoking and vaping in this age group. And even those with mild or asymptomatic infections could be spreading the disease to more vulnerable populations.
College plans vary widely.
- The risk of reopening is different for every college — based on size, location, structure, students, and campus life — and decisions should consider regional infection rates and public health guidance.
- The Chronicle of Higher Education is tracking more than 1,000 colleges: Currently, 56% are planning an in-person fall semester, 29% are planning a hybrid model, and 9% are planning for online. The remainder are planning for several scenarios or waiting to decide.
- Colleges are implementing testing, tracing, and isolation protocols: Bard will require students to show negative test results on arrival, Yale is planning to test students every week, and Amherst is setting aside residence halls to isolate students who have tested positive.
- Campuses that are reopening are also restructuring semesters to limit density and reduce movement between college and home. Several colleges are finishing in-person study before Thanksgiving; others are switching to a year-round trimester schedule to reduce the number of students on campus at any given time.
It’s going to be expensive.
- Colleges expect to spend huge amounts of money implementing safety protocols. The University of Central Florida has reportedly spent $309,000 on masks for staff and students and $491,000 on hand sanitizer, and is budgeting an additional $3 million for additional cleaning. Purdue University has budgeted $50 million, and Chapman University in California estimates its extra precautions will cost $8.3 million.
What don’t we know?
The risk to the broader campus community.
- Will faculty and staff want to return to campus? Many professors — some of whom are in high-risk groups — disagree with their schools’ decisions to reopen. Some have also suggested the extra stress of trying to maintain safety precautions will make teaching and learning less effective.
- What is the actual health risk for college-age adults? While most studies indicate that the fatality risk for young people is low, we are continuing to learn about the lasting impacts of infection, especially for those with underlying conditions.
- Would young adults actually be safer on campus, where protocols may be strictly enforced? A Cornell University study concluded that an online semester would result in more COVID-19 infections than an in-person one — partly because a residential semester would allow the university to require asymptomatic testing.
- But, as NYU professor Scott Galloway notes: “Gen Z is by far the age group most likely to be asymptomatic. They are also most likely to feel immortal and defy healthcare guidance. So, both physically and psychologically, young people are most inclined to be superspreaders.”
Protocols, enforcement, and liability.
- Will infected students and their families have any legal recourse if a college has inadequate policies or enforcement and a student gets sick? Questions remain about whether colleges will, or indeed should, have liability protection.
- How well will students adhere to safety protocols? While colleges will be expected to develop and enforce rules, the safety of the entire campus community will depend on student behavior and adherence.
The perceived value of virtual instruction.
- If “reopening” is limited to in-person classes and doesn’t include social activities, sports, campus resources, or other hallmarks of campus life, will students even want to go back?
- The high cost of higher education has been under scrutiny for a while — especially since many universities already offer online options and free, open courses. The shift to virtual learning has led many to ask whether the value of a college degree is the same when it’s virtual.
- Colleges have responded with different approaches to fees. Princeton is cutting tuition by 10%, but Harvard’s fees will remain the same.
What are the benefits of reopening?
The education experience.
- Campus closures and the transition to remote learning have exacerbated disparities. While some schools are offering emergency financial support for remote learning technology, not all institutions can offer this, and many students still do not have what they need to complete coursework at home.
- Adapting in-person content to a virtual setting places a massive burden on instructors; if they can’t effectively engage students on a digital platform, the quality of education suffers. Some types of coursework — from science labs to musical theater — can’t be offered virtually, and mastering a trade like welding or plumbing requires hands-on learning.
- The high cost of traditional college degrees has long been justified by the value of in-person networking and relationship-building. Social opportunities and extracurricular activities are considered an essential part of the college experience, but are difficult to duplicate online.
The economic impact.
- In many college towns, local economies depend on student spending, sporting events, graduations, and other school activities. Campus closures can be economically devastating.
- International students are an important source of tuition revenue for many colleges; they also contribute $41 billion to the U.S. economy annually and support more than 458,000 jobs. After pressure from schools, states, and employers, the U.S. abandoned a plan to strip international students of their visas if they did not attend at least some in-person classes this fall. Now many international students are likely waiting for colleges to confirm reopening plans to be sure that their housing is secure.
What are the risks of reopening?
Impact on faculty, staff, students — and surrounding communities.
- Faculty, staff, and students will interact with the off-campus community and travel between school and home. At many schools, particularly community colleges, students live off-campus; those students may be living with older family members, caring for children, or working full-time or part-time jobs.
- While most college presidents say they are confident their schools can keep students safe and deliver quality education — on campus or remotely — only 39% think they can ensure the safety of vulnerable people in their surrounding communities. Less than one-third believe they can ensure that students will behave responsibly when they’re not being watched.
Ability to ensure compliance with safety measures.
- Colleges have different policies regarding exemption from in-person teaching, and instructors are worried about the potential of contracting COVID-19. Instructors are also concerned they will ultimately be responsible for enforcing public health policies such as mask wearing and social distancing.
- The success of any safety measures will depend on college student behavior and attitudes toward quarantine, symptom tracking, contact tracing, and mask wearing. But many schools have limited influence over what happens off-campus, and the virus is already spreading in fraternity houses.
Unsupported reopening could deepen inequality.
- While most colleges have been impacted by closures, some campus communities — particularly historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — have faced greater challenges due to lack of resources or disproportionately high health risks.
- If wealthier colleges are able to offer better protections than institutions with less funding, disparities will only grow.
What can we do about it? What are the opportunities?
- The CDC published considerations for institutions of higher education, recommending several strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19. These include the use of face coverings among students, faculty, and staff, as well as modifying spaces to allow for social distancing.
- Large-scale, frequent testing programs will be needed to monitor any responsible campus reopening. CVS is offering a “comprehensive, fully configurable COVID-19 testing solution” that would help colleges provide diagnostic tests to students and faculty prior to return and throughout the semester.
- Policies, solutions, and funding should consider the needs of different types of higher education institutions — including community colleges and HBCUs.
- Experts suggest students should be involved in development of rules and codes of conduct, informed about the importance of adherence, and held accountable for following rules.
- Students could also be engaged in discussions about the value of higher education and rethinking the learning environment more broadly.
- Experts think there is an opportunity to expand and improve online education — for example, through partnerships between large tech companies and universities.
- New Yorker: What do college students think of their schools’ reopening plans?
- The Atlantic: The truth about what happens next for colleges.
- The Chronicle of Higher Education: ‘A fall unlike any I have seen’.
- Scott Galloway: Higher ed: enough already.