California State U is staying online for fall. Will the rest of higher ed follow?

For weeks, colleges have mulled whether they will resume face-to-face instruction for the fall 2020 term. Many have said they would move to do so, but have largely couched their statements. Only if the coronavirus pandemic subsides substantially would the full academic experience be possible once again, institutions say. 

Others have developed a wide range of intricate contingencies. The University of Kentucky is considering four scenarios, one of which could involve installing vending machines on campus that dispense personal protective equipment. 

But California State University (CSU), the largest public system in the U.S., has been far more definitive. Timothy White, chancellor of the 23 campuses that together enroll nearly 500,000 students, told the board of trustees during a remote meeting this week that most classes would be virtual come the fall. 

The decision is expected to resonate nationwide. Similar to how institutions track and copy Ivy League schools, CSU, as one of the world’s leading postsecondary systems, will “have an outsized importance helping shape the thinking of others,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. 

Whether colleges are as well-positioned as CSU to continue online instruction for the fall is unclear.

Pressures to reopen

Colleges are under enormous pressure to reopen campuses as some states loosen limits on businesses and lift stay-at-home orders. President Donald Trump’s administration has also urged states to ease these restrictions. On a conference call with Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Wednesday, officials pushed presidents from 14 prominent institutions to resume campus operations, according to Hartle, who was briefed on the conversation.   

A large focus of the discussion was a letter Purdue University President Mitch Daniels sent to campus last month, outlining his intent to mostly reopen in the fall. He suggested administrators could spread students across more class times to maintain social distancing and test them before they arrive, as well as throughout the academic year. 

Campus leaders want a return to normalcy. They anticipate enrollment downturns at their institutions, fueled not only by the economic turmoil but also by a lack of interest among students to pay full price for online courses. Some colleges have been sued for tuition refunds, with students claiming the quality of online education is not up to snuff for what they paid. Even before the pandemic, research showed students preferred in-person classes to virtual ones. 

About two-thirds of colleges that announced their fall plans as of May 13 are aiming for in-person classes, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education database

CSU broke with that majority. And because of its size and influence, the system will lead other colleges to resume the fall term largely online, said Frederick Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at right-leaning think-tank American Enterprise Institute. 

“What you see a lot of times in situations like this, in any organization, but especially universities and colleges, is that leaders want something that will help cover their ass,” Hess said. “If Cal State’s not opening, it makes it a lot easier to make your case about doing the same.”

White said during the board meeting that although certain classes in which face-to-face instruction is “indispensable and can be justified,” such as biology labs, will be held on campus, a typical start to the academic year is not possible. 

The system was likely decisive for several reasons, said John Thelin, a professor of higher education history and public policy at the University of Kentucky. California has historically been a forward-thinking state that makes careful decisions based on data, he said. CSU is headquartered in Los Angeles County, which this week doubled down on coronavirus safety measures. Stay-at-home orders for the county are likely going to be extended until July. That is far too late to start opening up a campus in time for fall, Hartle said. 

The jurisdiction’s reservations in reopening likely factored into CSU’s thinking, Thelin said. Two of its more populous campuses, CSU Long Beach and Los Angeles, are also in that area. 

Easily positioned

The system also will not face the same roadblocks offering online education. It has made robust investments in its digital infrastructure in the past several years — something not all colleges have done. Many of CSU’s branches are commuter campuses, meaning they have fewer residence halls and so their budgets weren’t as affected by having to return students’ room and board fees.

Meanwhile, the University of California (UC), the state’s other public four-year system, is still exploring options for fall, said Claire Doan, a UC spokesperson. Doan said the system is considering a “mixed approach,” with some in-person classes, while other instruction may remain remote. UC officials anticipate making decisions for fall by mid-June, she said.

Reopening campuses safely nationwide would likely necessitate testing for the virus, as well as using advanced contact tracing and consistent social distancing, Hartle said. 

Brown University’s president, Christina Paxson, argued in a recent New York Times op-ed that restoring campus operations is vital for the country, and those measures can enable colleges to do so. 

But coronavirus tests are not widely available, and they would prove costly for institutions of all sizes. Testing students regularly would cost the system about $25 million a week, White said during the meeting.

“Every institution will have to look at a host of factors to reopen, starting with the local dynamics of the outbreak and where they’re located,” Hartle said. 

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