What If Colleges Don’t Reopen Until 2021?

Millions of families face a question that was once unthinkable.

William Widmer / The New York Times / Redux

Every two years, New Jersey’s higher-education secretary expects the state’s school administrators to present contingency plans for disaster scenarios. Dorm fires, mass shootings, extreme weather events—all types of threats are considered by these college representatives. University presidents, deans, and others in essential management roles have color-coordinated charts and go bags stashed in their offices. They conduct tabletop exercises: When do we cancel classes? Should we send students home? But these leaders weren’t adequately prepared for the onset of a pandemic, nor for the large-scale, indefinite shutdown that has taken place.

Overall, colleges have responded quickly to the multifaceted coronavirus threat. Universities swiftly moved classes online, canceled spring sports, and instructed students to vacate their dorm rooms. (Some institutions refunded fees for on-campus housing, or found ways to get study-abroad students home.) Still, shutting down was the easy part. Now administrators have to figure what their institutions will do once this semester ends. “If you were to design a place to make sure that everyone gets the virus, it would look like a nursing home or a campus,” Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, which has more than 130,000 students enrolled online, told me yesterday.

When university presidents are asked whether they’ll open their campuses for the fall 2020 semester, most couch their answers in conditionals and assumptions. By now they’ve realized that they can’t just open for business on September 1 and let everyone rush back onto campus like excited Black Friday shoppers. Ohio State President Michael Drake suggested he might start bringing professors back to campus in a few weeks. Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University, said he would reopen its campus in the fall and separate those older than 35 from those younger. But even he called the declaration “preliminary.”

When there are tens of thousands of dollars at stake for students and their families, I don’t know is not a satisfying answer. Why would students plunge themselves into years of debt for an online education instead of the full college experience they signed up for? Some soon-to-be high-school graduates have proposed taking a gap year, but for a lot of students—low-income students, minority students, adult students—that is not a practical option.

If students are able to walk onto campuses in the fall, they might not recognize the universities they’ve enrolled in. Arenas and auditoriums may be converted into lecture halls, which would allow students to avoid cramped classrooms and spread out. Hotels could become dormitories so that students can have their own rooms and bathrooms with limited exposure to germs. Then there’s the question of sports—specifically, the multimillion-dollar college-football industry. “Talking to some of my colleagues who run big-time Division I programs, they’re really sweating this out, because those television revenues are big dollars,” LeBlanc, who also chairs the board of the American Council on Education, the nation’s largest higher-education coordinating body, told me. Clemson’s head football coach, Dabo Swinney, has been adamant that the school will be playing games in the fall. But even in that unlikely scenario, teams would likely play to empty stadiums.

Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, in New Orleans, told me he plans to use the chapel on campus that was renovated after Katrina—and can now accommodate 800 people—for large lecture courses where students can remain socially distant. That might be easy for smaller colleges like Dillard, whose “large” classes are about 50 people, but at state flagship universities, it’s unrealistic. Kimbrough also told me his plan is tentative; if returning to campus is too risky, the university will continue to operate online.

Many colleges are building out their online infrastructure with incomplete data. College leaders are leaning on research about the best practices for online learning to guide their strategies, but that research does not account for the multilayered disruption of a pandemic. College-from-home becomes a radically different undertaking when students have been laid off from jobs and are now home trying to figure out child care. (Nearly one in four undergraduate students has children.)

LeBlanc, from Southern New Hampshire University, said he fields many calls from other school leaders asking how his institution conducts courses online. They rarely ask him about the other services that students learning online need, though; counseling, tutoring, and mental-health support are afterthoughts, he told me. The colleges and universities where students are most in need of these additional services may be the ones hardest hit financially by the crisis: junior colleges, nonselective private colleges, and public regional universities. New Jersey state lawmakers, for example, have already announced that they will place 50 percent of the funding for state colleges in reserve until September 30, the end of the fiscal year.

John Thelin, a University of Kentucky professor and the author of the definitive History of American Higher Education, told me that he’s never seen anything like the dual crisis colleges are facing right now. If this were just a public-health crisis or a financial crisis, institutions likely would have been fine. The two combined, however, have produced an unprecedented disruption. “Colleges are prepared for dramatic, catastrophic events. What they’re not prepared for are drawn-out things that are less spectacular, but that really cannibalize their operations and their budgets,” he said. And unlike hurricanes or tornadoes, which may affect one city or state, this crisis is affecting the whole higher-education sector, so institutions have limited ability to help one another out.

Ironically, the disruption to higher education most comparable to the present situation in scale might be the boom in college enrollment after World War II, Thelin said. When Congress passed the GI Bill, in 1944, government officials underestimated just how many students would take advantage of the scholarship program embedded in the legislation. From 1940 to 1950, the number of Americans earning degrees each year more than doubled, from 200,000 to 500,000. Some universities tripled or quadrupled in size. Indiana University, for example, grew from 3,000 students in 1944 to more than 10,000 in 1946.

Now college administrators are looking at the inverse possibility. They’re scrapping plans for growth in service of public health. They’re moving operations online. Nobody wants to be the first to reopen, nor the first to say they’re going remote until 2021 or later. “A lot of places have the capacity to reopen in normal circumstances,” LeBlanc told me. “But we’re not going to flip a switch and go from ‘everyone shelter at home’ to ‘everybody go back to what you used to be doing three months ago.’”