Why some colleges embraced a virtual fall sooner than others

California State University, the largest public four-year system in the U.S., made headlines in May after opting to hold classes almost exclusively online this fall.

The announcement made the system an outlier. The vast majority of colleges were planning to reopen campuses, in part because they feared another remote term would dissuade students from enrolling. 

But Cal State and other schools that called their fall plans early had a menu of reasons to believe they could make another unconventional term work: they are well-resourced, unique in the higher education landscape, or they believe the virus could have outsized effects on their students. 

These colleges aren’t likely to be exceptions for much longer, as higher ed experts predict the trickle of schools staying online will become a flood as the pandemic persists.

“I expect a bunch of colleges to announce their actual fall setup within 72 hours of each other in the next two weeks,” said Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. “It just takes a few colleges to lead the way and then their competitor institutions will follow.”

A ‘privileged’ decision

Cal State cited the high cost and difficulties testing students for the virus as part of the reason it couldn’t resume normal operations. Chancellor Timothy White also said the system was listening to the predictions of health experts, who at the time anticipated a second wave of the virus toward the end of the year after the number of coronavirus cases theoretically would have fallen. 

But confirmed cases have surged in recent weeks, as some states rushed to lift restrictions on businesses.

Several colleges have since walked back their initial plans to hold in-person classes in the fall. The University of Southern California was one of the first major institutions to change course earlier this month. 

Harvard and Rutgers universities announced shortly after USC that they would be mostly online this fall. Princeton and Georgetown universities are inviting students back to campus in limited numbers.

Because of their reputations, elite private colleges don’t need to worry about losing students, and they are financially equipped to handle revenue losses, said Brendan Cantwell, associate professor and coordinator of Michigan State University’s Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education program.

Students will still attend Harvard, even if it’s online, Cantwell said, citing the university’s wealth and social capital. He added that the university’s decision is a “privileged” one. 

Elite private colleges are also privy to the latest information on the health crisis, said Chris Marsicano, founding director of Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative, which is tracking institutional responses to the pandemic.

“The benefit of being (Harvard President) Lawrence Bacow is that there is not a single person on the planet who won’t pick up the phone when you call,” he said. “Harvard has access to the best information in the world, all the time.”

A unique place

Ivy League universities also don’t rely as much on sports money as institutions “at the poles of intercollegiate athletics,” Marsicano said. Some schools with big-name programs, such as the University of Notre Dame, depend on lucrative TV contracts to generate revenue, while smaller institutions bank on athletics to help attract students.

The Ivy League conference was the first Division I athletic conference to suspend all fall sports, and its decision was highly watched. 

Cal State, with the exception of a few campuses, isn’t prominent in the athletic scene, Marsicano said. 

It has relatively few residential students — many more are commuter, international or adult students. Marsicano said the university knew keeping tabs on so many students outside the campus would have proved difficult. 

Similarly, some of the most recent reversals on fall plans come from historically Black institutions. Spelman and Morehouse colleges, two prominent HBCUs in Georgia, said Monday they would hold classes virtually, citing the rising coronavirus numbers in their state and across the country. 

Kelchen said HBCUs have been taking student safety more seriously because they recognize the disproportionate effects of the coronavirus on communities of color. That has included early moves to cancel sports. 

“It is imperative that we get this right because there is too much to risk if we don’t,” Morehouse President David Thomas wrote in a letter to campus.

High-profile HBCUs such as Morehouse also won’t lose out on many students, Marsicano said, noting that they will also likely be praised in the long run for being mindful of their students and making decisions early.

“It isn’t eliteness that is driving these online decisions, it is uniqueness and a sense of community,” he said.

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