As students swirl this summer, enrollment numbers might not be fixed until the fall.

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The concept of the “student swirl” was conceived in the 1980s to describe undergraduates who moved among institutions before earning a bachelor’s degree.

This summer, the student swirl might be used to describe students trying to decide where to go to college — a decision that largely hinges on how campuses open for the fall, whether it’s in-person, online, or perhaps the most likely scenario, a mixture of both modalities.

On LinkedIn Live next week:

On Monday at 2 p.m. ET, I’ll be joining Bridget Burns from the University Innovation Alliance in our sixth episode of a show we’re calling Start the Week With Wisdom — where we talk with college and university presidents during this crisis.

  • Our guest: Shirley M. Collado, president of Ithaca College.

On Thursday at Noon ET, during another edition of my NEXT Office Hour, I’ll be talking about commencement speeches in the age of virtual graduations and the coronavirus.

  • My guest: Aaron Hoover, executive speechwriter to the president at the University of Florida, who has written some two dozen commencement speeches in his career and won several Cicero Awards since 2011.

For both, no need to sign up. Just join live on my LinkedIn page (or if you follow me, you’ll get a notification when we’re on).

‘We Just Don’t Know’

The announcements from colleges about their plans for the fall have been rolling in over the past several weeks.

  • Two-thirds of schools that have announced their plans say they will hold in-person classes in the fall, according to a searchable database the Chronicle of Higher Education is compiling.
  • Only 7 percent are planning to continue this spring’s grand remote experiment, with the most significant announcement on that front coming this past week by the giant Cal State system.
  • But many campuses have yet to make official announcements. Most of those are likely to be coming in late June or early July.

Bottom line: As one president who hasn’t made an announcement yet told me this week: “I intend to exercise in the morning, but it doesn’t mean I will.” If you look closely at almost every announcement, there is a lot of hedging.

What’s happening: It’s all about enrollment — driving the deposits of accepted students and the return of current students.

  • Saying you’re opening campus in the fall is playing to the masses. Students want to be back on campus (and their parents want them there, too).
  • Nearly two-thirds of college students say they would attend in-person classes if colleges reopen in the fall, according to a new College Reaction poll.
  • Follow the money. It all seems to come back to having on-campus revenue. That drives staffing levels, infrastructure spending, bond ratings, athletics, research. Right now, a college campus is like a city with no one living it.

But, “it ain’t August yet,” as Chris Gruber, Davidson College’s vice president and dean of admission and financial aid, reminded me this week.

  • “We just don’t know what’s going to happen once colleges start to release their definitive plans for the fall.”

As a top-ranked liberal arts college, Davidson occupies a position in the higher-education hierarchy that allowed it to hold to a May 1 deposit deadline (while hundreds of other schools moved to June 1).

  • At 555 incoming freshmen, as of this week, Davidson is actually a bit over its targeted number.
  • Despite speculation that gap-year requests would skyrocket this year, only eight students requested a deferral on their acceptance to Davidson by the May 1 deadline. Four likely would have taken a gap year no matter what, Gruber told me, while the other four wanted to “wait until there was certainty of a residential experience.”

Once Davidson announces its fall plans around the “July 1 time frame,” Gruber said, he knows the other shoe could drop. Students might start swirling and his numbers, like those of his counterparts around the country, could quickly shift.

  • 1 in 4 Davidson undergraduates is an athlete. If teams aren’t playing, will they come?
  • 230 students were scheduled to study abroad this fall. That number has dropped to 152 already, and is only expected to decline further. If they can’t go away, will they delay coming back to campus until they can?

Bottom line: Managing enrollment in higher ed over the last decade has turned into Moneyball. Quants with sophisticated models have helped colleges figure out who is most interested in the school, who will enroll if accepted, and how much financial aid it might take to attract them. Now, those models largely built on historical trends, are rendered almost useless.

New York is the nation’s largest “college town,” with more than 1 million students.

Rethinking the Urban University

The revival of urban universities like New York University, the University of Southern California, the University of Pennsylvania, and others was crucial to the broader urban revival over the past three decades, according to an op-ed I co-wrote in the Wall Street Journal with the urbanist Richard Florida last weekend.

  • Until the 1990s, urban universities, like cities, were sort of down in the dumps. Many were commuter schools. Much more desired were campuses in bucolic, quaint college towns.
  • A virtuous circle set in an urban revival and the revival of urban universities.
  • Former NYU president John Sexton liked to say that his university was blessed by a spectacular “locational endowment” to compensate for its more meager financial one. The model spread to LA, Philly, Pittsburgh, Columbus, and many other urban areas.
  • Universities came to be seen as key anchors for urban revival.
  • Now, the very thing that attracted students to cities — density — is what’s spreading the coronavirus.
  • We laid out ideas for the immediate future of urban universities from AmeriCorps-like public service programs to rebuild communities to a domestic study-abroad that links together urban and rural institutions.

Read more, A Crisis for Urban Universities (subscription required)

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Being Ready

Georgia State University has been widely recognized over the last decade for its ability to increase the retention and graduation rates of its diverse student body of some 50,000 undergraduates. Much of Georgia State’s work is rooted in analyzing data on the progress of its students, and then intervening with advising and financial aid when needed.

That foundational knowledge on how and where students get stuck has served the university well in this current crisis, Tim Renick, the university’s senior vice president for student success, told me recently.

  • 800 “risk factors” are built into the university’s predictive analytics software that allows advisers to reach out proactively to students when one is triggered.
  • New risk factors were added for remote learning. Are students logging on to their classes? Are they logging on to other systems at Georgia State? Are they completing their assignments? Alerts went directly to academic advisers when students failed to log on.
  • More than 3,500 alerts were triggered the first two weeks of online-only operations. Every one of those students was contacted by an adviser.
  • 98% of students signed on to their classes this spring. “We’re catching any problems and resolving them quickly,” Renick said.

Read more, Five Questions for Georgia State University

Watch more, a 15-minute interview with Tim on the NEXT Office Hour on LinkedIn Live.

Photo by Tyler Callahan on Unsplash

Designing a Campus for Social Distance

Think about the typical college campus: It’s exactly the type of place NOT designed to keep people at a distance.

So, as colleges lay out various scenarios for this fall that call for capacity-controlled buildings and classrooms, the question remains: just how are they going to manage the flow of students?

Ricky Tompkins, the vice president for learning and chief academic officer at NorthWest Arkansas Community College, is turning to Ad Astra, a scheduling system he’s used for more than ten years to ensure classes were filled up before new sections were added.

  • The scheduling system is one of those pieces of academic “pluming” on a college campus that you don’t think much about until you need to build the most efficient schedule, using perhaps only 50 percent of your space.
  • In the college’s nursing program, for instance, Tompkins is trying to figure out how to split a cohort of 40 students into four groups of ten that divide their time between in-person labs and online lectures.
  • It’s like a giant game of Jenga. “Maybe a group of students come to campus Tuesday and Thursday and another group comes Monday, Wednesday, Friday,” he said.
  • “We need to know which classrooms can be used and when, what’s their capacity, which ones have lab equipment, and where can we be most energy-efficient,” he said.


The Future of Higher Ed, Part I

For decades Diane Rehm was one of my favorite radio hosts on NPR. This week, I joined Diane on her weekly podcast to talk about the future of higher ed in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Future of Higher Ed, Part II

As the possibility that college campuses may not be able to reopen this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic grows, Scott Galloway predicts a handful of elite cyborg universities will soon monopolize higher education.

The Future of Higher Ed, Part III

Fernando Bleichmar of Cengage joined Michael and me on a recent episode to talk about three waves of the higher ed response to Covid-19, what’s worked and not worked on campuses, and the results of a new survey of faculty and institutions about the shift to remote learning.

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...