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Welcome to August.

Over the weekend, I was in the Container Store in Washington, D.C. Normally at this time of year, a quarter of the store would be set aside for helping students outfit their college dorm room.

But there was no back-to-school display this year. Last week, the store’s neighbor, American University, joined a growing number of colleges in reversing plans for in-person education this fall, announcing that it would be fully online.

In an earlier edition of this newsletter — back in May, which seems like a century ago — I wrote that two-thirds of schools had announced that they would hold in-person classes this fall.

Now, that figure is rapidly falling, according to the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, which is tracking how institutions are responding to the coronavirus. I’ve been watching nifty visualizations the Chronicle of Higher Educationhas been compiling using the Davidson data: On July 27, the percentage of colleges planning an in-person fall dipped below 50% for the first time since May.

As a remote fall is turning into reality at more schools, the idea of starting an academic year virtually, with all its rituals (including back-to-school shopping), is coming into full view.

Save the date: August 12 at 8 p.m. ET for the first in a series of virtual discussions about admissions in the Covid era aimed at high-school seniors, their parents, counselors, and college admissions officers.

  • First up: the challenges of applying to college during a disrupted senior year, as well as what’s happening with admissions testing. I’m co-hosting this first one with Grown & Flown and will be leading the conversation with admissions deans from Washington University in St. Louis, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Indiana University.
  • Register for free here to watch live or on-demand at a later time.
Photo by Chris Arthur-Collins on Unsplash

Starting at the Front Door

The rituals of the fall that are subject to change this year start at what most of us think of as the front door of colleges: the admissions office.

A vigorous debate has emerged in recent days on the email listserv for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). The topic: fall visits to high schools. The discussion list is made up of high-school counselors and college admissions officers and this is normally the time of year when they are finalizing their calendars for high-school visits.

The fall recruitment visits, where admissions officers log hundreds of milesin rental cars and 60- to 70-hour work weeks dropping into high schools for information sessions, has long been a feature of how colleges build the top of their “funnel” of prospective students.

  • The visits influence where students apply and enroll, according Megan Holland, author of Divergent Paths to College and a professor at the University of Buffalo.
  • But which colleges visit and how many is highly correlated to the wealth of a high school, researchers at UCLA have found.
  • Nearly half of high schools that receive visits by private colleges and universities are in neighborhoods earning more than $100,000 annually, although those zip codes make up only about a third of American households.

In my forthcoming book, one of the chapters is subtitled “High School Matters.”

  • Among the students I followed was one who went to a high school where he was more likely to see a military recruiter than a college representative.
  • Suburban high schools welcome as many college representatives in a day as visit rural schools over a two-month period in the fall.
  • During my time inside admissions offices, I found that the unit being evaluated was less often the applicant than the applicant’s high school. Colleges, in essence, are recruiting and evaluating high schools.

By the numbers: When one brand-name college analyzed 130,000 applications it received over the span of a decade, just 18% of high schools were responsible for 75% of applications and 79% of admitted students.

What it matters: During this upcoming admissions cycle, colleges are going to be flying a little blind when it comes to applicants. They’ll be missing test scores, some grades, and extra-curricular activities. The question is whether they will lean even more into the high schools that have long sent them bundles of applications.

What’s next: Like everything with this pandemic, technology is transforming how we conduct face-to-face business.

  • Rather than visit just a handful of high-schools in a week, colleges can now bring together students from a region.
  • “We can offer something even better,” Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University wrote in one of the posts on the NACAC listserv this week. Those students who never had a representative visit their high school “can come to us, and sit in a room with students from the schools on everyone’s visit list and learn about our universities.”

Bottom line: The playing field that high-school seniors are competing on this fall isn’t changing, but like professional sports during the pandemic, some rules will be modified. The question is which ones will stick once the pandemic is over.

Read more: The Introduction from my book, exclusive for subscribers of this newsletter.

If you pre-order the book now, you’ll also get these bonus goodies. Feel free to forward this offer to a friend.


Making a Campus Run in a Pandemic

When we think of colleges, we think of studentsBut campuses are also workplaces. And in visiting hundreds of them over the years, I have come to realize just how different they are than most other workplaces.

Early on in my reporting days in the late 1990s at the Chronicle of Higher Education, a senior reporter described working on a college campus as a caste system: with administrators at the top, faculty near the top, and then the staff. And, in the middle of this pandemic, the divide between the “faculty” and the “staff” has only widened.

Although staff are critical to campuses re-opening this fall, they largely have been missing in high-level planning and in the news coverage.

  • When I dug into the workplace culture of campuses for a piece that appeared in The Atlantic this week, I found staff who feel like they have little control over their day-to-day job and whether they will even have a job in a few months.
  • Compare that to faculty, who on many campuses get to choose whether they want to teach in-person this fall. And, increasingly on many campuses, they are choosing the remote option. So, even if students are “back” they’ll likely be learning from professors teaching off campus.

One reason campus staff is overlooked is because the term itself is amorphous.

  • Staff includes those we often think of as staff, such as maintenance and dining workers.
  • But it also encompasses athletic trainers, computer technicians, lawyers, and academic advisers with advanced degrees.

Since the pandemic began, staff — who constitute about half of those employed by American colleges and universities — have been hit with the brunt of furloughs and layoffs.

  • Some 250 schools have instituted furloughs, but two-thirds have taken that action only for staff, according to the College Crisis Initiative.
  • About half of the colleges that enacted layoffs did so only for staff.
  • Of more than 900 colleges that have allowed employees to work remotely, 300 have extended that benefit only to faculty.

Bottom line: If campuses reopen this fall, students might for the first time “see” the value of the campus staff, who will largely be the people actually on campus. But if campuses don’t open for in-person instruction, it’s likely the staff who will feel most of the fallout from the financial crisis facing many colleges.

Read more.

? On LinkedIn Live: Thursday from 1–1:15 p.m. ET, I’ll joined by two leaders from Indian River State College in Florida to discuss how the college’s experience in online education helped it pivot to remote learning in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Read more about what Indian River did here.
  • No need to sign up for this virtual discussion. Just join live on my LinkedIn page (or if you follow me, you’ll get a notification when we’re on).


New York State and Quarantining (Datawrapper)

An analysis from my friends at Open Campus looking at where college students in New York hail from. New York continues to expand its list of travel-advisory states, requiring visitors, including arriving students to quarantine for 14 days.

Impact of Football on Small Colleges. (The Council of Independent Colleges)

New report on impact of adding football on enrollment at smaller colleges. Bottom line: Short-term boost, but no long-term gain.

‎In the Bubble with Andy Slavitt: Should Colleges Open? (Apple Podcast)

People love him or hate him, but NYU Professor Scott Galloway has been getting a lot of press this spring for his very provocative (and sometimes incorrect, IMHO) view on higher ed. But I like this podcast from Andy Slavitt, a former health official in the Obama administration, so I thought this is worth a listen with Galloway as the guest.

As always, thanks for subscribing. And be sure to check out (and subscribe) to the other newsletters from my colleagues at Open Campus if you’re interested in international higher ed, the experiences of first-generation students, or more regular updates on the state of the industry.

Cheers — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on TwitterFacebookInstagram, 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...