Empty Lecture Halls, No Fall Football, a Freshman-Only Campus

How colleges are thinking through reopening plans.

An empty college lecture hall.
Peter M. Fisher/The Image Bank via Getty Images Plus

With its wide green lawns and stately architecture, Concordia College’s bucolic campus in the small New York suburb of Bronxville is one of its main attractions to students. Campus has been closed to students since March 22, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo instituted the state’s plan to “pause” normal operations. Now, administrators there are trying to figure out what it will look like for Concordia to reopen in the fall. “The degree of anxiety and uncertainty right now in higher education is unparalleled,” said John Nunes, Concordia’s president since 2016. “There’s no one you can talk to who knows what is going to happen.”

Across the country, colleges and universities are trying to make plans for the fall semester, armed with the same scraps of speculation and ever-changing information. Only one thing is certain: Campus life at the schools that do reopen their classrooms and dorms this fall is going to look radically different.

When most schools closed their campuses in March in response to the pandemic, it felt inconceivable to employees and students that closures would last longer than the semester. “We initially thought, ‘Oh, no problem, by the fall we’ll be back,’ ” said Deborah Weiss, a professor and faculty senate president at Southern Connecticut State University, a public school in New Haven. “Now it’s looking tentative.” Last week, Weiss was asked by her administration to gather faculty volunteers for a committee to make plans for the fall, with options ranging from remaining fully online to reopening campus at something like normal capacity.

With spring semesters winding to a close, many colleges and universities have by now canceled their summer activities or moved them online. But few have made concrete announcements about the start of the traditional school year in the fall, or what it might look like. There are hints that some schools may continue to operate virtually. California State University–Fullerton announced last week that it was preparing to at least start the fall semester online-only. Boston University said it had considered delaying the start of the next semester until January 2021. The chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh recently told campus leaders that “back to normal probably is not likely” for the school this fall.

Other schools are striking a more bullish tone. In Indiana, Purdue University’s president announced last week that the school plans to welcome the usual number of students back to campus in the fall. The president of Brown University, Christina Paxson, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on Monday arguing that the future of higher education relies on most schools reopening their campuses. “I am cautiously optimistic that campuses can reopen in the fall,” Paxson wrote, citing protocols like rapid testing and disease tracing. Brown recently announced a task force to develop fall plans but has not made an announcement about its final decision. Many schools have said they will make plans public by a particular date: George Washington University will announce plans by May 15, the University of South Carolina by June 15, Yale by July. Harvard announced on Monday that it will reopen either online or on campus in the fall, an announcement that served to highlight the fact that reopening instead of delaying the fall semester is a choice rather than an inevitability.

Colleges, just like any business, naturally want to reopen. But at small private schools, especially, reopening could be a matter of survival. “We are highly dependent on tuition,” Nunes said of Concordia. “When enrollment drops, there will be a place below which our model will not be sustainable. … We’re vulnerable.” Some schools are resorting to offering enticements like tuition discounts, early move-in dates, and plum dorm assignments, as the Washington Post reported last week. For many schools, room and board is an important source of revenue, which means that charging tuition for online courses will still portend significant losses. In Ohio, Urbana University announced last week that it was closing permanently at the end of the spring semester; enrollment had been low for years, but “the global coronavirus pandemic has added a level of stress and uncertainty to Urbana’s prospects that make it impossible to sustain.”

At Berea College in Kentucky, administrators are looking at a range of scenarios for the fall, from reopening with new social distancing procedures, to postponing the return to campus by a few months, to postponing the start of the semester until January. “We want the best possible chance of saying yes to the semester,” president Lyle Roelofs told me last week. He is keeping an eye on access to rapid testing and also on infection rates in the states from which Berea draws a significant share of its students, including Georgia and Florida. (Berea’s financial incentives are different because it accepts only students from low-income families and does not charge tuition.)

But even the administrators leading the charge to reopen campuses in the fall acknowledge that daily life will look radically different. Masks will likely still be in common use. Packed lecture halls are not an option. There is open speculation that the college football season and other fall sports could be canceled. Some schools are tentatively planning for a “hybrid” semester, with select learning components taking place on campus, with social distancing measures in place, and other activities remaining online. Baylor University in Texas announced Monday it plans to resume in-person classes and residential life in the fall, but added, “We are not planning for a ‘normal start.’ ” In her op-ed, Paxson acknowledged that campus life could look different for Brown students in the fall: “Imagine athletics events taking place in empty stadiums, recital halls with patrons spaced rows apart and virtual social activities replacing parties.”

At Concordia College, Nunes expects some classrooms this fall to be “flipped,” using a teaching model that typically means that instructors record lectures for students to view on their own, with group class periods used for the professor to help with traditional “homework” assignments. Another possibility is breaking the fall semester into two sections, giving students more flexibility about when to arrive. “I don’t know yet what returning means,” he said, “but it will look different.”

Most administrators I spoke with sounded fairly optimistic that sophomores, juniors, and seniors would generally be willing and able to remain enrolled, even if many classes are virtual in the fall. The bigger question is incoming freshmen. At colleges where a robust campus life is part of the attraction, will students and their parents be willing to pay for an experience that is a pale copy of the glossy college brochure? Will low-income students or those without much family support be able to overcome the disruption of a monthslong delay? With many campus visits canceled this spring, many schools have no idea what their enrollment numbers will look like, anyway. The traditional deadline for a high school senior to commit to a college is May 1, although many schools have extended the deadline to June 1 this year. “A student who has been delayed in their plans will not necessarily follow through,” Roelofs said. One of the scenarios Berea is considering is inviting only freshmen onto campus in the fall, to get them acclimated to college culture while maintaining social distancing recommendations.

As institutions large and small have speedily learned how to conduct college classes online, there’s the question of whether the pandemic portends a permanent realignment toward virtual teaching in higher education. But it’s also possible that forgoing campus life for a semester or two will serve as a reminder of what makes it so special in the first place. “You hear a lot of talk about how this will change the face of university education,” Weiss said. “That might be true. … But I think once we get it back, people will really treasure being together face to face.”