What Are Colleges—and Their Students—Doing This Fall?
In the midst of a global pandemic, the landscape of higher education is changing. Many universities have transitioned to entirely-virtual learning models; others are opting for “hybrid” plans that allow students to return to campus while taking fewer in-person classes. And some schools, unable to weather pandemic-induced financial losses, have shuttered for good.
The Chronicle of Higher Education hosts a database detailing the Fall 2020 plans of over 1,000 American colleges and universities. The California State University system has opted for online learning with no housing available; Harvard, too, will have all-online classes but will guarantee housing for freshmen only; Stanford will stagger which class years will reside on campus in order to reduce population density.
As the New York Times notes, almost 60 percent of the surveyed schools plan to welcome students back to campus in some capacity. This is a somewhat reassuring figure for the legions of incoming freshmen hoping to leave home and experience residential college life. But there is no real safe way to host hundreds of people in dormitories, which means that campus procedures must be drastically modified. Students are unlikely to be able to visit friends in neighboring dorms and enjoy meals in a dining hall; parties are out of the question. All of this is to say: the college experience as we once knew it is gone, if only for a few years.
So why should anyone return? Olivia Ferrucci, a rising sophomore at Columbia University, believes that modified college is better than none at all. “I want to be back on campus no matter what, because I hate being stuck at home and feeling like I’ve regressed back to being in high school. It’s the best I can get. Obviously, this isn’t going to be the full experience, but it really is better than nothing.”
Columbia has chosen to invite freshmen and sophomores back to its New York City campus for the fall semester, while juniors and seniors will return in the spring. It hasn’t yet been announced exactly which classes will and won’t be conducted in person—but Ferrucci says that doesn’t necessarily bother her. “Even if my classes are online,” she continues, “at least I’ll get to feel like an actual college student and be on campus.”
Many seem to echo Ferrucci’s sentiments. A TikTok with over 260,000 views jokes about “going back to college to be mentally stable”, and for its 65,000 likers, those aforementioned feelings of regression and depression are real—and a return to campus, even one with no physical classes, is worth it.
Lexi Moran, however, expresses concern about the merits of online learning. “I was really looking forward to some of my classes this semester, and I don’t think I’ll have the same experience online as I would in person, which definitely kills my motivation to learn.”
Moran is a rising sophomore at The Ohio State University, and is planning to live on campus in sorority housing. OSU is welcoming students of all years back, with “the use of appropriate face coverings, physical distancing, hand hygiene, limited density in indoor spaces, control of the flow of traffic into and around buildings, continued employee teleworking when possible, testing, symptoms tracking and contact tracing. A teaching and learning approach that combines in-person and distance methods is also being developed.”
It’s a change, Moran notes, from typical campus life. “I’m excited to go back, but I don’t even know what to expect. It’s pretty disappointing because these are my four years to find myself, but how can I do that via Zoom?”
For students not returning to school, Zoom will have to serve as a classroom once again. Emory University will be allowing freshmen and those in certain circumstances (seniors with Honors work, students with financial aid packages that include housing) to live on campus, but most other students are being asked to continue their education remotely.
“All my classes have been moved online whether I like it or not, so I’m just trying to make the best of it by creating a workspace for myself to separate school and home life, in a way—and I’m fortunate to be able to even do that,” says Emory sophomore Zoe Bienert. “The situation is really bad right now with COVID, and I understand their decision to go virtual. It’s just not great when I know that I’ll be struggling with some classes, because they’ll be a lot more self-taught.”
A Top Hat study found that students generally find it more difficult to complete coursework for online classes. This adjustment issue is only exacerbated by the fact that 62 percent of surveyed students “lack regular and reliable access to a quiet study space”, and 24 percent “lack regular and reliable access to the Internet”. For many, universities’ purposes extend beyond learning—colleges are places to live, eat, work, and have access to resources otherwise not available. “Online learning is not the ideal way for me to learn,” continues Bienert, “and I’m not going to get the same level of education I might’ve gotten if we were in person.”
Is it worth paying for an education, then, that pales in comparison to what was previously offered? Is a gap semester a better option? Davis Van Inwegen, also an Emory student, believes it to be. “The best part of being a political science major is that, after my two other internships were canceled, there’s still an election in 2020. After joining a campaign, I was able to work my way up into a staff position, which gave me the flexibility to forgo expensive online courses for more real-world experience.”
Van Inwegen is one of many students choosing this route. An April survey conducted by the American Council on Education shows that one in five college students are unsure about their fall re-enrollment plans, and gap year volunteer programs are seeing increased interest in serving. The logic: online classes simply aren’t worth full price. Until the face-to-face shift occurs, students’ time could be better spent in employment, gaining skills that even a college education cannot provide. “I think students, especially at Emory, can be too wrapped up in academia,” continues Van Inwegen, “and I think students should be taking more gap semesters like this to remind themselves of the real world.”
No matter which route students ultimately choose, the future remains uncertain. But at the cores of each option, there are fortunately still opportunities for education, chances at socialization—even if virtual.
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