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No matter whether you call it autumn or fall, the portion of the year that starts in a few months is causing major heartache for colleges.

What seemed like a compelling planning exercise a month ago — What if students can’t return to campus in the fall? — has now turned into a full-blown crisis on campuses with multiple scenarios, most of which raise far more questions (and fears) than they answer.

Making the Go/No-Go Call for Fall

The decision to shutter campuses last month because of the coronavirus happened mostly within a two-week window in early- to mid-March. And the result was immediate: classes swiftly moved online within days or weeks.

  • The ruling on whether to reopen on time in the fall, delay the start of the semester, or continue online is likely to happen over a much longer period in the coming months.

The big picture: The coronavirus crisis moved so fast in March that students, parents, and faculty realized that colleges also had to move quickly to respond, often without a plan. They were patient.

  • Now, the equation changes for the fall. Students and parents want to know sooner rather than later if their classes are going to be online in the fall, in case they want to make alternative plans, such as taking a year off. Faculty want to know soon as well, so they have time to plan and design their courses.

Why it matters: When to make an announcement about the fall is somewhat out of the hands of college leaders, of course. A lot depends on what their governor and public health officials say. It’s likely that when college leaders feel like they need to make a decision, it will be based on limited information about what life is really going to be like come September.

  • Other factors, as a result, will also be considered. A big one: what competitors are doing.
  • Once a college makes a decision about what to do and puts it in motion, it will be nearly impossible to reverse. So, no one wants to be first. Everyone is waiting for another college in their state or competitive set to make the decision about fall.

What they’re saying: During a virtual office hour I hosted about admissions earlier this month, Purdue University’s Kris Wong Davis said the university would like to make a decision about the fall “sometime in May.”

  • Lehigh University’s president, John Simon, wrote in a letter to parents last week that he plans to “provide an update on our approach in June so that students, faculty, staff, and families know what to expect.”

What’s next: Once a decision is made about what the fall will look like in terms of operations, the next big decision is how anything short of a regular, on-campus experience will be priced. Most colleges want to keep their tuition levels steady — and for good reason. Their instructional costs remain the same, and in many cases have increased because of technology.

When I posted a poll on Twitter last night, many agreed that there shouldn’t be a tuition cut this fall. But on some campuses, students and parents are already clamoring for one, even this spring, as The Washington Post’s Nick Anderson recently reported.

Rethinking the Academic Calendar

Colleges and universities are all weighing options for the fall that will force “a reconsideration of bedrock assumptions about the academic calendar, and of the shape and trajectory of college life,” the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Beth McMurtrie reports.

The money quote: “The hard part is that no one knows what to plan for, because you have too many variables,” said Frank Dooley, a senior vice provost at Purdue University.

  • Surprisingly, it seems easier to remain online for the fall to college officials than to think about blowing up the academic calendar as we know it.
  • Alternatives approaches, such as shortening the semester, adopting a “low-residency” approach, or a hybrid model where you bring fewer students back to campus — all ideas I outlined in the last edition of this newsletter — don’t seem to be catching on, at least for now.

By the numbers: Per The Chronicle, a recent survey of college registrars found that more than half of colleges are considering remaining fully online in the fall or are considering cutting the number of in-person courses.

  • Just 21 percent of those using the semester system said they may delay the start of the term. Fewer than 20 percent said they would have sessions shorter than 16 weeks.

Reality check: “Minimesters” aren’t new in higher education, but they haven’t been widely adopted by most traditional colleges.

  • Arizona State University adopted split semesters in 2012. It operates A and B sessions, with courses that last seven and a half weeks and a C session for the full 15 weeks. That makes it much easier to delay the start of the semester by simply making the A session for everyone online.
  • As a special advisor at ASU, I spend a few days a month on ASU’s Tempe campus and have seen how the shorter sessions allow students to free up time for internships during the academic year or to mix-and-match courses, taking what they perceive to be difficult classes over 15 weeks with easier classes in the shorter sessions.
  • Georgia Tech recommended in 2018 that the institution adopt minimester classes to “allow students to replace monolithic three-credit-hour classes with more granular and flexible modules.”

Read: The Next Casualty of the Coronavirus Crisis May Be the Academic Calendar (subscription) — although in reality the casualty might be the credit hour, finally.

(Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash)

Start and Finish

Two big transition points in higher education from high school to college and from college to the workforce are under pressure by the coronavirus.

  • Incoming: 20–25% of high-school seniors tell pollsters they are likely to defer admission for a year or go to school part-time.
  • Outgoing: 3 out of 4 college students who secured internships or post-graduate work have seen those plans upended.

The big picture: It’s only in recent years that more colleges have put time, effort, and money in these transitional periods in the name of student success. In the post-pandemic economy, it’s likely colleges will need to design alternative pathways in and out of the institution for learners who don’t want to — or can’t afford to — follow the traditional path.

Among the options:

  • A gap year experience that allows for a partial freshman year with one or two traditional academic courses or short courses, access to mentors, and some sort of project-based experience or service learning. One big need young adults could fill in the coming years is helping health-care professionals or rebuilding the economy in their local communities. The goal of an integrated gap-year experience should be a lower price for those who need it, but one that doesn’t leave students at the starting line when it comes to their academic progress. So credit toward some sort of credential is crucial.
  • Industry-based or skills-based credentials built into the senior year of college as an alternative to graduate or professional school (at least immediately) and so that students leave campus job-ready with something Brandon Busteed called a “credegree” in Forbes or proficient in skills as they enter what is sure to be a tough labor market.

The Future of the Admissions Office

VIRTUAL EVENT: In the wake of Covid-19, admissions officers are thinking differently about the way they work with their colleagues and how they interact with applicants from online meetings and document sharing and virtual open houses.

Join me on May 7th at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT as I moderate a discussion hosted by Liaison about how the fast pivot to remote work could lead to long-lasting changes in the admissions office. I’ll be taking your questions and interviewing…

  • Mark Butt, director of undergraduate selection, Emory U.
  • David Cotter, assistant provost for graduate enrollment, Boston U.
  • Sarah Jacobson, assistant dean, the Graduate School, UNC-CH

Register for free now.


Love Students, Not Traditions

In a new weekly video streaming program on Facebook and LinkedIn, I join Bridget Burns of the University Innovation Alliance in interviews with college presidents during this pandemic. This week, we talked with Michael Sorrell of Paul Quinn College. Institutions, he said, “need to be more in love with their students and less in love with traditions.”

AP, Juniors, and the College Search

The college search will definitely be different for the high school Class of 2021 because of Covid-19. Watch an on-demand version of virtual office hours I hosted recently with the head of the College Board’s AP testing as well as admissions officials from Purdue and Emory.

Leading During the Pandemic

In the latest episode, the president of Davidson College, Carol Quillen, talks about sticking to your mission in a crisis. “It’s easier to make better decisions when you can ground them in your values,” she said.

Stay safe and stay strong — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...