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. 

College plans vary widely.

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.

Protocols, enforcement, and liability.

The perceived value of virtual instruction.

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. 

Unsupported reopening could deepen inequality. 

What can we do about it? What are the opportunities?  

Near-term guidelines.

Long-term improvements.

Further reading