Dive Brief:

  • Colleges’ plans so far for the fall term show an emphasis on in-person instruction, particularly at schools focused on undergraduates.
  • That’s according to the College Crisis Initiative, based at Davidson College, which compiled the plans of more than 2,900 institutions, including community colleges. Four-year schools can be sorted by variables such as sector, Carnegie classification and NCAA division.
  • Around a quarter of the schools haven’t announced how they will start the academic year, though the researchers expect more colleges to do so in the next few weeks.

Dive Insight:

If colleges’ fall reopening plans were placed on a spectrum from fully online to fully in-person, few institutions would find themselves at its poles, according to the initiative’s data.

“It’s notable that a large amount of schools are trying to pursue a hybrid solution or are trying to pursue a way in which even if they are online learning, that a lot of students can still come back on campus, or vice-versa,” said Nathan Jordan, a data science fellow at Davidson College who is working on the initiative.

One of the main reasons for taking that approach is bringing in revenue, said Katie Felten, a data and policy analyst for the initiative, “so they can say that it’s worth paying however much for classes that might be primarily online.” Schools lost revenue refunding students for fall housing costs, and they stand to miss out on more auxiliary income if students aren’t on campus. Some have said they won’t refund students again if dorms close.

Around 480 schools plan to be hybrid this fall, while 693 expect to be mostly online, according to the database. Meanwhile, 627 aim to instruct primarily in person. The hybrid category reflects schools that are trying to offer fully in-person and online experiences at the same time, the researchers noted. Four-year schools that cater primarily to undergraduates tend to be more focused on offering some degree of in-person experiences.

Still, more than 800 haven’t formally decided. Felten expects more schools will announce their plans in the next two to three weeks. Those could include delaying students’ return to campus while starting instruction online. 

That’s the approach Clemson University, a public institution in South Carolina, is taking. It announced yesterday that it will begin in-person instruction on Sept. 21, citing an increase in confirmed coronavirus cases in the state. Online classes will start in mid-August.

Other schools have cited changes in the pandemic’s progression in their rationale for modifying their plans for the fall. Jordan expects more schools will do the same, noting that Clemson’s move “might start a new trend of (colleges) actually engaging more with the state of COVID-19 in this country” in their plans for the fall and that the increases in case numbers will make the topic harder to avoid.

Schools also have watched as outbreaks sprung up among groups that returned to campus early, such as student-athletes, and as models show the potential for the virus to spread on their campuses once at full capacity. 

“You can’t bring everyone back and then send everyone home,” he said. “If you have a COVID outbreak you have to contain it on your campus.”

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