University of Akron

There was a thought that a “silver lining” of the pandemic would be a push for higher education to embrace new ideas.

The sector often is criticized for being slow to change. But many, many things quickly transformed at colleges over the past year. A question that remains, though, is which may stick.

Peeks at potential answers emerged via recent early fall plans released by several local institutions. The outlooks vary in level of specificity and details, yet they center on boosting the amount of on-campus interactions.

“Our goal is to get back to in-person the way it was,” said Marisa Rohn, the vice president of advancement, human resources and partnerships at Stark State College. “But we will obviously look at Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and respond to the environment.”

Rohn stressed the college’s biggest priority will be to adhere to current health guidelines to make the North Canton campus a safe environment for students. The majority are set to return to in-person instruction after a year that saw about 80% of classes online.

Flexibility was key last year. Stark State wants to keep meeting students where they’re at, Rohn said. Advising meetings still will be offered in a variety of ways. Video updates seemed to resonate more with students compared to lengthy emails, so those may stay, too, though perhaps with less frequency. And for those who did enjoy online classes, the college plans to offer more — though it’ll be in addition to face-to-face classes, not to replace them.

The University of Akron also plans to offer “significantly” more in-person courses. Similar to its peers nationwide, UA’s plans are rooted in the idea that most people will be vaccinated by August and the virus’ spread will be limited.

“Safety is paramount,” the third sentence on its online rollout reads in bold. Two lines down emphasizes that yes, things can change. The university’s executive vice president and provost, John Wiencek, said it took a while to sum up Akron’s current initial planning, including getting input from health officials and other stakeholders. The language was important.

“How do we message this and recognize that it’s not fully our decision and we don’t have 100% certainty?” he said, adding that leadership focused on “making sure we’re doing that in a way that isn’t running afoul of directions that others really want us to go.”

Leaders have to carefully craft wording that’s both hopeful yet truthful, said higher education strategic consultant Susan Baldridge.

“They’ve learned not to make guarantees to people, because they now know what it means to have to respond to unexpected changes beyond their control,” said Baldridge, previously the provost at Middlebury College in Vermont.

The timing also is important, especially given the enrollment woes of the past year locally and across the country. Graduating high school seniors soon will finalize their post-secondary choices. Last fall brought a 10.5% drop in freshmen enrollment at public four-year colleges nationwide, a number administrators undoubtedly want to avoid seeing again.

Fall class registration typically begins around this time as well, and students will want to know more about the courses they’re selecting.

Akron’s fall preview website tackled other topics in addition to classes and safety precautions. It looked at questions probably on the minds of students, both current and prospective, as they weigh their fall decisions and plans: What will the dining experience be like? Will the recreation center be open? What about my dorm?

This fall, students have different options when it comes to living situations. They can buy out a double room in a residence hall to turn it into a single dwelling. First-year students now won’t be required to live in a residence hall.

“What we’re trying to do is to allow the student and their parents to make choices that make sense for them,” Wiencek said.

That move, though, will impact the money the university brings in via room and board fees. It is an often-lucrative income stream for institutions. It may be especially vital when enrollments decline, as UA’s did by 8% last fall. Officials are forecasting an undisclosed loss in revenue from these fees for both the current and future fiscal year.

Things are also changing in Kent State University’s residence halls. Dorms will only be singles or doubles, and those living on campus will continue to undergo mandatory COVID-19 testing. Youngstown State’s brief overview of its return to “near normal” said more students are expected to be in residence halls.

While these early plans address several things, they can’t address everything. Colleges with a “traditional” in-person and residential learning experience will respond differently than those who serve students in different ways.

Plus, there’s still a lot of time before the fall semester begins, and no one knows exactly how things will pan out. These announcements all leave space for additional developments to be relayed later as administrators’ planning continues.

“I think it’s very likely that there will be some kind of lasting changes,” said Baldridge, the consultant. “What’s hard to anticipate right now is exactly what those will look like.”

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.