In spring 2021, the overwhelming majority of California’s colleges continue to operate primarily online. This is in contrast to the rest of the country, where only about half operate primarily online. California’s cautious approach is supported by health data, but it may have equity implications that colleges need to address.
Collaborative research conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative shows that 89% of California campuses with identifiable COVID-19 plans are providing fully or primarily online instruction for the spring, compared to only 54% of colleges in other states. Only 4% of California colleges are providing fully or primarily in-person instruction, compared to 27% elsewhere.
Nearly all of California’s public two-year and four-year colleges have adopted a fully or primarily online model, compared to only 70% and 61% in the rest of the US. Although rates of online instruction are lower in the private sector, disparities between California and the rest of the nation are just as large. In California, 74% of private four-year nonprofit schools have adopted an online model, compared to 40% in the rest of the country. Similar disparities are evident among smaller institutions (those with fewer than 3,000 students): 65% have adopted online models in California, while 42% have done so elsewhere. Virtually all (99%) of California’s medium and large institutions adopted online models, compared to 66% in the rest of the country.
COVID-19 data support California’s cautious approach to in-person instruction in higher education—and indicate a need for strict protocols among students and staff who are living and working on campuses. Case rates in December were much higher in California than in the rest of the country. Among the California colleges examined above, the average daily county rate was 80 cases per 100,000 residents, compared to an average of 57 cases for colleges in the rest of the country.
Moreover, national research suggests that colleges are having an impact on infection rates in their surrounding communities. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that large colleges with remote instruction are linked to decreases in COVID-19 cases in the counties that surround them, while counties in which large colleges have resumed in-person instruction have seen significant increases. The growing presence of more-infectious COVID variants has heightened the need for caution and vigilance.
However, there are trade-offs to this approach: California’s reliance on online instruction may be exacerbating inequities that have already been heightened by the economic recession. Accordingly, it is crucial that the state and its higher education institutions continue to work collaboratively to provide equitable access to remote learning and protect the health of students. Governor Newsom’s proposed budget would provide much needed financial and educational support for the state’s community colleges, and several proactive institutional efforts have already created relatively safe on-campus experiences for those still living in college dorms. These efforts should continue beyond the spring semester, as students will continue to face economic, safety, and physical and mental health challenges.