6 ways college might look different in the fall

Online vs. in-person college.
Hanna Barczyk for NPR

What will happen on college campuses in the fall? It's a big question for families, students and the schools themselves.

A lot of what happens depends on factors outside the control of individual schools: Will there be more testing? Contact tracing? Enough physical space for distancing? Will the coronavirus have a second wave? Will any given state allow campuses to reopen?

For all of these questions, it's really too early to know the answers. But one thing is clear: Life, and learning for the nation's 20 million students in higher education, will be different.

"I don't think there's any scenario under which it's business as usual on American college campuses in the fall," says Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist and physician at Yale University.

So why are so many colleges announcing they will be back on campus in the fall?

In many cases, it's because they're still trying to woo students. A survey of college presidents found their most pressing concern right now is summer and fall enrollment. Even elite schools, typically more stable when it comes to enrollment, have reportedly been tapping their waitlists.

In the midst of all this uncertainty, it's worth looking at some of the ideas out there. With the help of Joshua Kim and Edward J. Maloney, professors and authors of the book “Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education,” here are some potential scenarios for reopening colleges and universities.

All virtual

Perhaps the most obvious option for the fall is to continue doing what they've been doing this spring. Colleges have signaled that they're planning for this option — even if it's a last resort. California State University, Fullerton, was one of the first to announce publicly it was planning for a fall semester online.

"Obviously we want to resume in-person teaching as soon as possible, but we also need to make sure that we're safe," says Ellen Treanor, who helps lead strategic communication at the school. Treanor says it made a lot of sense to assume the school would start online. "What would be the easier way to transition? It would be easier to transition beginning virtually and then transitioning in person," she said. "The faculty [needs] to be prepared."

With virtual classes, students can remain at home, although some colleges are exploring bringing them back to campus, where they could use the school's Wi-Fi to take online classes.

Delayed start

A delay in the semester would allow a school to wait it out until it was safer to reopen. One option is to push back a month or two, starting in October or November. Another idea is to push a normal start to January. In that case, the spring semester would become the fall semester, and potentially students could stay on campus through next summer to make up the spring semester. Boston University floated a version of this January start date when it announced a number of plans it was exploring.

One downside to a late start is what students will do in the meantime, especially those who don't have financial stability and rely on campus or the university to be a safe and stable home.

Some online, some face-to-face

This would be a hybrid model, with a combination of virtual and in-person classes. It may be a good choice for campuses that don't have enough classrooms to allow adjusting face-to-face teaching to the requirements of social distancing.

"You might have some of the larger classes being taught online simply because it's harder to imagine a 150- or 350-person classroom," says Maloney, who leads the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University. "So you might see that class split up into multiple sections." For large, entry-level classes, colleges may have a lecture component online and then meet in smaller groups in person.

"The hybrid model doesn't have to just be about modality," Maloney says. "It can be, but it could also be about fundamentally rethinking what the core structure has been for those large classes."

Of course, shifting larger classes online may not be enough, by itself, to alleviate the health concerns of having students on campus. Early research from Cornell University found that eliminating such classes didn't lessen student interactions with each other.

Shortened blocks

In block scheduling, students take just one course at a time for a shorter duration, typically three or four weeks. Colorado College, a liberal arts school south of Denver, has been using this model for 50 years. The college adopted this style of classes because "it allows [students] to take a deep dive and really focus in unique ways on the single subject," says Alan Townsend, the provost there. In a typical year, the school offers eight blocks.

In addition to its intensity, block scheduling is attractive right now because it allows flexibility. Colleges that use it have the opportunity to change the way classes look every three weeks — since there are multiple start and stop points. (With a semester, you have only a single start and then, often 16 weeks later, an end.)

"It's easier for us to now think creatively for next year," Townsend says. "Different students can make different choices. That's really hard to do with a semester-based system, but the blocks allow us to do that a little bit more flexibly."

The school is also entertaining the idea of sending faculty abroad to teach a block for international students who might not be able to enter the U.S, or adding summer blocks to give students even more opportunities to take classes.

Only some on campus

Some colleges have suggested bringing only freshmen back to campus and having upperclassmen either delay their start, or be online and remote.

The idea centers on research that shows just how important a student's first year of college is as a predictor of graduation. Adapting to campus can be a challenge, so this would allow first-year students to get comfortable and have extra support on campus.

Since upperclassmen are already familiar with how campus and classes work, the theory goes, they can more easily adapt to an online environment. Other versions of this approach would have students who have housing needs come back to campus first, and then, over time, phase in other groups of students.

All these options seek to keep the population density of the campus lower while still maintaining some face-to-face interactions.

On campus, with some changes

Social distancing, improved testing and contact tracing could help colleges reopen their campuses.

"Every school is trying to figure out a way to have students come back and do whatever we can while also protecting public health," says “Learning Innovation” co-author Joshua Kim, director of online programs and strategy at Dartmouth College.

"At the same time, we know that, however that works, things will be different. It's probably unlikely that we'll be able to cram students together in large, packed lecture halls or put doubles and triples in residence halls or have big events."

To follow social distancing, professors are measuring their classrooms, calculating how many students could fit in the space if they were 6 feet apart. Deans are planning out how students could enter and exit the classrooms safely.

But it's not just the classrooms that pose a challenge. For residential colleges, it's the dorms.

"Whether or not students are actually learning in the classroom, it's incredibly important for them to have an on-campus experience," Maloney says. So schools are thinking about how they can spread their students out, putting them in places where they normally wouldn't go.

Some ideas include housing students in offices that aren't being used, local hotel rooms or off-campus housing. Institutions are also reimagining campus events, like freshman orientation, since it's unlikely hundreds of students will be in a packed auditorium.

"Rethinking how we do everything we do at a university is part of the process," Maloney says.

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