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Articles / Applying to College / Will COVID-19 Change College Forever?

Will COVID-19 Change College Forever?

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | June 2, 2020
Will COVID-19 Change College Forever?


To answer my title question, we first have to ask another question: "How long will COVID-19 be active?" Obviously, no one knows for sure, but at the top of our pandemic wishlists are two eagerly sought after solutions: (1) a vaccine or (2) a pharmaceutical cure.

Unfortunately, even those two accomplishments are nowhere in sight. Even if they were, it's not all that simple, according to The Atlantic's Ed Yong:

Even a perfect response won't end the pandemic. As long as the virus persists somewhere, there's a chance that one infected traveler will reignite fresh sparks in countries that have already extinguished their fires. This is already happening in China, Singapore, and other Asian countries that briefly seemed to have the virus under control. Under these conditions, there are three possible endgames: one that's very unlikely, one that's very dangerous, and one that's very long

The first is that every nation manages to simultaneously bring the virus to heel, as with the original SARS in 2003The second is that the virus does what past flu pandemics have done: It burns through the world and leaves behind enough immune survivors that it eventually struggles to find viable hostsThe third scenario is that the world plays a protracted game of whack-a-mole with the virus, stamping out outbreaks here and there until a vaccine can be produced. This is the best option, but also the longest and most complicated ...

Due to what I've observed both in my region and globally, I think the whack-a-COVID-19 approach is going to be the standard. However, Yong's observation that this will go down a long, complicated road eventually leading to a vaccine is correct, in my view, simply because of the mutational characteristics of this highly infectious virus. A quick victory isn't in the cards.

Time for a Shift in Mindset

Accordingly, then, we're going to have to adjust our thinking about "the college experience," as we have come to know it. If you have been following the long thread on the College Confidential discussion forum about how colleges are planning to welcome back students for Fall 2020 (School in the fall & Coronavirus), you've seen some dramatic examples of what college life may be evolving into. Three quick examples:

- Changing semester schedules: The University of Notre Dame will have students start earlier for fall semester this year, during the week of August 10. The school will forego fall break in October and end the semester before Thanksgiving. This will limit students traveling off and then back onto campus, hopefully limiting infections.

- Lower initial headcount: Dartmouth is thinking about bringing back fewer students to campus to limit the number of undergraduates who can return, as it tries to ease into resuming in-person classes while also balancing safety and social-distancing concerns.

- Reduced class size: As one CC forum poster notes: "Bowdoin [College] talked about having just 10 to 15 per class so they can meet in classrooms that fit 30 to 35. They don't have many classrooms to keep 30 students socially distanced. Making the class list will be complicated … half of the classes will be remote."

These are just top-level changes that could become standard for many colleges and universities. The most apparent changes, as long as COVID-19 remains active, will affect students daily, as they are tested regularly for infection, required to wear masks, monitored for excessive gatherings, quarantined when infected and required to follow other safety protocols.

Admissions Also Shifting

The effect on admissions policies should not be overlooked. I just learned about a new term being applied to college applicants: the Extended Waitlist. As one college wrote to selected applicants: "[We would like to] offer a few highly qualified students the opportunity to remain on an extended waitlist …" This not only allows certain applicants to play the long odds for eventual acceptance but also extends their uncertainty (and possible stress) while giving schools a chance to hedge their bets on enrollment results. Once again, colleges stack the deck in their own favor.

Presently, an overwhelming number of colleges are making plans to bring students back to campus for Fall 2020, even if the arrival date of students isn't anywhere near the calendar start of Fall, as with Notre Dame's August 10 start. Some schools will be mixing in-person classes while also offering online instruction for others (a "hybrid" approach), in the interest of balance and safety. Here are some insights about how distance learning is changing higher education.

Jon Marcus, writing in The New York Times, and reprinted in Chicago Tribune, asks, Will the coronavirus forever alter the college experience? Speaking specifically about online classes, and to make a point, he notes:

A professor at Loyola University New Orleans taught his first virtual class from his courtyard, wearing a bathrobe and sipping from a glass of wine. Faculty at Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania, trained in making document cameras at home using cardboard and rubber bands.

Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York, set up drive-up Wi-Fi stations for faculty members whose connections weren't reliable enough to let them upload material to the internet. And students in a musicology course at Virginia Tech were assigned to create TikTok videos.

The disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic has prompted cobbled-together responses ranging from the absurd to the ingenious at colleges and universities struggling to continue teaching even as their students have receded into diminutive images, in dire need of haircuts, on videoconference checkerboards

Granted, if I were a professor, I doubt that I would assume the Hugh Hefner-Antonio Galloni look, although the casual ambience of the internet can be alluring. Colleges, ever sensitive to student preferences — think swimming pools, hot tubs, a first-run movie theater with free snacks, an arcade, putting green, a free ice cream truck, etc. — are highly reluctant to shift too much of their curricula to the digital realm. Some think it's actually a more complex task than classroom teaching, as Marcus details:

Conceiving, planning, designing and developing a genuine online course or program can consume as much as a year of faculty training and collaboration with instructional designers, and often requires student orientation and support and a complex technological infrastructure

"The college experience," according to The ABC's Of A Typical College Experience, is sacred and administrators are struggling to avoid diluting its full impact because that's what students want and are willing to enter into deep debt to get it. The extreme safety measures colleges are now taking threaten the status quo of that experience. For example:

- Small in-person classes, activities, and events. Individuals remain spaced at least six feet apart and do not share objects (e.g., hybrid virtual and in-person class structures or staggered/rotated scheduling to accommodate smaller class sizes).

- Residence halls are open at lower capacity and shared spaces are closed (e.g., kitchens, common areas).

- Recommend and reinforce use of cloth face coverings among students, faculty and staff. Face coverings should be worn as feasible and are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult. Individuals should be frequently reminded not to touch the face covering and to wash their hands frequently.

That certainly doesn't sound like the sacred college experience I and my Paper Chase-like buddies enjoyed. But that was then and this is now. In trying to make a reasonable response to my title question — Will COVID-19 change college forever? — I'll just say, "Not forever, but definitely for the near future."

While colleges might not change forever, the trickle-down from the current transformation of the college experience could change the minds of high schoolers. They may wonder if the expense, strictures and risks of campus life are worth the educational, experiential and financial sacrifice. If that line of thinking gains momentum, then colleges will be dealing with another crisis as ominous as the current novel coronavirus itself. Interesting times ahead.

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Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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