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College Plans during COVID-19

Hans Johnson July 29, 2020
photo - Young Adult Wearing a Mask

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities across the nation are deciding how best to provide instruction (and housing) for the fall 2020 term.  According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 600 colleges across the country are planning for an in-person approach, with most students living on or near campus and instruction offered mostly in-person. Just under 600 colleges are planning on an online or hybrid approach.

But as the fall term becomes more immediate and the virus continues to spread, colleges are increasingly choosing an online or hybrid approach. Over the past few weeks, the number of colleges planning on these approaches increased dramatically, while the number planning on an in-person approach fell.

figure - Nationwide, about Half of Colleges Are Planning In-Person Classes

Size and resources matter. Public colleges, which tend to be large, are much more likely to opt for online or hybrid models, while small private colleges—many with students housed on-campus—are much more likely to choose in-person instruction.

California stands out, with relatively few colleges planning on an in-person approach. The vast majority of the state’s colleges and universities—82%—are planning to operate primarily online or adopt a hybrid approach. Even a majority of private colleges in the state are planning on an online or hybrid approach.

These decisions appear to be a response to the continuing spread of the virus in California, and may be informed by the state’s guidelines issued for K-12 schools. Many public flagship colleges in states with low COVID-19 case rates, such as Hawaii and Wyoming, are planning on a primarily in-person approach. But even in some states with relatively high rates of contagion, including Georgia and South Carolina,  flagship schools are still planning on in-person classes and housing.

figure - California Colleges Are Much Less Likely To Plan on an In-Person Approach for Fall 2020

Many students have been reconsidering their plans for the fall.  A large survey of California students found that more than 80% had changed some aspect of their fall plans (or were uncertain of their plans). For many, financial hardships were causing them to rethink where they might attend college and how much they might need to work. The vast majority (90%) expressed concern about the shift to online courses.

The good news is that less than 2% had decided not to reenroll in college at all. As the fall semester begins, it will be important for the state and its higher education institutions to reach out to students and put plans in place to ensure that they can successfully continue their education even in the midst of the pandemic.

At a recent PPIC Sutton Family Speaker Series event, the leaders of the state’s three public segments of higher education, Eloy Ortiz Oakley of the California Community Colleges, Tim White of the California State University, and Janet Napolitano of the University of California, all counseled students to stay in school. President Napolitano urged, “This is a time to keep at it, stay in school, keep making progress toward your degree—it is a degree that will serve you your entire life.”

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