Envisioning the Fall Semester on College Campuses

Amidst Final Exams, Administrators Face a Test of Their Own

Discussions that college students would normally have on quads and in classrooms have been moved to video calls. In March, colleges across the country sent students home to curb the spread of coronavirus. As students take their final exams off-campus this spring, administrators and public health officials are also being put to the test as they make plans for the fall semester. Plenty of creative solutions are being discussed.

James Herbert, President of the University of New England said the school is considering testing students for coronavirus antibodies and assigning roommates based on the results. Students who do not have antibodies could be paired with students who do, so roommates would not get each other sick.

Stanford University has floated the idea of holding classes in large tents, since the virus spreads more easily in small spaces. Similarly, Macalester College is looking at reducing lecture offerings and putting small classes in auditoriums so students can be spaced out. Christina Paxson, President of Brown University, says the school is hoping to reopen safely by requiring students and staff to wear face masks and limiting large gatherings like parties and athletic events.

Falling Enrollment Numbers

Even before the pandemic, colleges were seeing drops in enrollment numbers. Nationwide, the number of students in college has fallen 11% over the past eight years. This downward trend is due to a number of factors.

One reason was that before coronavirus, the economy was strong and unemployment was low, so more people were joining the workforce instead of going to college. During the 2008 recession, college enrollment increased. If the economic downturn worsens and unemployment level rises, people may consider college a more attractive option. That being said, if online learning continues to be the only option for colleges, this may deter potential students who don’t think the cost of online college is worth the return.

Additionally, birth rates fell about 20 years ago, so the college-age population is now shrinking. Another huge factor in this trend is the rising cost of college. As state investment and scholarship money decreases, the burden is falling on students and their families. Average tuition at in-state public colleges was $10,116 for the 2019-2020 school year. Private college tuition was even higher—$36,801 on average.

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The Financial Impact on Schools

If campuses do not reopen in the fall, both public and private institutions could face significant financial hardships.

Residential colleges will not make money off of dining and housing. Administrators at all schools, especially small, private colleges are worried that, without the residential experience, students will not see the point of paying such high tuition.

State colleges also face looming financial worries. Even after the pandemic is over, an economic downturn could impact state tax revenue. Moody’s Analytics estimates that state tax revenue will fall by 20% next fiscal year, which would put a huge strain on state-funded universities.

College administrators, staff, and students are all hoping for a healthy, safe reopening of campuses, both from an educational and financial perspective. For now, though, it is too early to determine how and when that will happen.

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