This Will Be One of the Worst Months in the History of Higher Education
By Robert Kelchen | JULY 07, 2020
Summer is usually a period of relative calm for most of American higher education, but this one is different. Faculty members are increasingly indignant about the prospect of being forced back on campus in the fall; administrators are quietly scrambling behind the scenes to do contingency planning. These disruptions are just the beginning. Whether colleges are willing to admit it or not, chaos will be greeting many of them in the coming weeks, and wishful thinking will not be enough to avoid it.
Most colleges have been optimistically pitching a return to campus for students, even if they acknowledge the experience will be much different than normal. The Chronicle’s tracker of colleges’ fall plans currently shows that about 60 percent of colleges are planning for an in-person fall, while less than 10 percent are planning for a mainly online fall.
I wrote an essay in May about how I expected colleges to have most of their classes online in the fall. Since then, two developments have made widespread returns to campus even less likely. The first is that both the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and the percentage of people testing positive for the virus have increased in recent weeks, indicating further spread of Covid-19 in much of the country. Large off-campus parties have fueled the contagion even more in college towns. The second is that federal support for reopening campuses does not appear to be on the horizon. While Senate Republicans are open to providing some funds for testing, their next relief bill is not due to be unveiled for at least a month. That is far too late to help colleges in August.
Following the lead of a number of community colleges and the California State University system, a few elite private institutions, such as Bowdoin College and Harvard, have announced plans for a primarily online fall semester. In a likely sign of things to come, the University of Southern California, which had previously announced it would use a hybrid model, recently reversed course. It now says almost all of its classes will be online. Once a few more colleges start to make these announcements — and especially when it becomes obvious that college football will not happen — expect the dam holding back further announcements to break.