May 4, 2020 - Economy

Colleges gamble on reopening this fall

Illustration of a graduation cap with an open sign replacing the tassel

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Colleges around the U.S. are formulating plans to welcome students back to campus this fall — afraid they'll be headed for financial catastrophe if they remain closed.

The big picture: Social distancing could still be in place and medical experts say a second wave of coronavirus cases is possible in the fall, but for many universities, the revenue blows that would come with an online semester are too severe to weather. They've got no option but to figure out how to reopen.

  • If colleges don't open this fall, “[i]t’s not a question of whether institutions will be forced to permanently close. It’s how many," Brown University President Christina Paxson wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

Over the last week, several university presidents have revealed their thinking on how an on-campus fall might work. Among the schools that have announced intentions to open in the fall are Purdue, the University of Nebraska, the University of Alabama, the University of North Carolina and Baylor.

Administrators from these institutions and others have put forth a range of strategies:

  • The capability to test all students upon arrival and regularly thereafter is critical, Paxson wrote.
  • Large lecture classes would likely continue to be held online, and athletic events would go on without spectators.
  • To limit students' exposure to one another, some universities are considering inviting a smaller number of students to campus — just freshmen for whom an on-campus orientation is key, for example — and spreading them out across dorm facilities.
  • Schools may have to ban social gatherings above a certain size and limit students' ability to have visitors on campus or travel away from school on breaks, Purdue President Mitch Daniels wrote.

Yes, but: College administrators are "surely aware that when you bring a whole bunch of students back, it's not like opening up an office building where everyone sits carefully in their cubicles," says Graeme Wood, a professor at Yale and a correspondent for the Atlantic. "That's not what college is."

  • Telling millions of college students — many of whom are experiencing their first taste of independence — that they can't see friends and throw parties is easier said than done.
  • Think of the thousands of students who went on spring break trips and crowded beaches even after several states had put social distancing guidelines in place.

On top of that, college campuses are designed to be dense environments where students eat, live and learn together — and mix and mingle with all types of people through different dorm assignments, extracurriculars and seminars along the way.

  • To isolate students is "contrary to the ideas of a liberal education," Wood says. 'That's not a college experience that's working the way it's supposed to."

The bottom line: The trajectory of the pandemic continues to change rapidly, and colleges' time to put testing and tracing plans into place is running out.

  • "The only certainty is the uncertainty," says Andrew McMichael, a dean at Auburn University at Montgomery tells Axios. "Anybody, including me, that tells you they know what's going to happen in the fall is wrong."
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