How Colleges Respond to Crises

How Colleges Handle Crisis

How Colleges Respond to Crises

Published March 27, 2020

How Colleges Handle Crisis

Colleges must often respond to crises like active shooters, extreme weather, and even mold. They have plans in place to serve their staff and student body in these crisis situations.

But colleges have been scrambling lately to cope with an unexpected crisis: the coronavirus.

Parents and students are caught in the midst of the college decisions that affect their families and their student’s future.

Parents have been sharing their experiences on social media, and along with several news stories.

It’s also important for those families with students entering college in the near future to note how colleges handle and respond to crisis situations. The information will help you make an informed college choice.

Responses To The Coronavirus Outbreak

At the end of February, the first signs of college concern regarding the virus appeared as colleges began to cancel study abroad programs to China and Italy. With the highest outbreak of serious cases in these countries, this step made sense.

Although it was met with disappointment from the students, parents agreed it was wise to ere on the side of caution.

This, however, was only the beginning, as colleges scrambled to respond to the increasing concern within the United States. Here’s what college have done to address the crisis:

Study Abroad Programs Are Cancelled

Initially, universities prohibited travel to the countries hardest hit by the virus.

As the outbreak progressed, they added more to the list and now with international travel bans in place and based on advisories from the CDC, most study abroad programs are either cancelled, put on hold, or completed online.

A recent article in a New Jersey publication reported, “Some schools are providing financial assistance or refunds to students returning early. Other universities are trying to find students free housing on campuses back home. And some returning students are able to complete their semester coursework online through the overseas universities they had to leave.”

In our Paying for College 101 Facebook group, Iris Richardson said, “I am a student in Italy right now and many of the students who had been forced home by their university have gotten no or little support. They are put under 2 weeks quarantine, no access to the campus and one student was told she had to take two extra online courses despite of their program here continuing online.”

Most Colleges Have Required Students to Leave Campus and Return Home

Initially, colleges were extending students’ spring break, but in light of recent recommendations by the CDC and state governments, decided to close campuses.

Some students were given days to move out of the dorms, being forced to arrange for storage and last-minute travel plans..

International students were caught off guard as colleges tried to make accommodations for those students who could not return home.

Parents struggled to help students vacate their dorms with little notice.

Parents posted their frustration on social media platforms, some blaming colleges for forcing students to leave quickly and others praising them for considering the health and well-being of their students.

The parents from our Facebook group shared some of their positive experiences:

Rice University

Pinky Mappa: They provided boxes & storage pods for students. If students didn’t get to pack up their belongings before leaving for spring break… the school said don’t come back & don’t worry – belongings will be safe. For international students who can’t leave, the college will provide room & board. Students with financial difficulties will be provided support.


Lara Mordenti Perrault: Tulane has been great. Paid for 2 months of storage for every student, had boxes, tape and storage company on campus the day after they announced the closing, have been in pretty constant contact and are doing their best to answer questions.


Salma Shaban: Baylor …shipping essentials, medication, books, laptops to students at home free of charge.

Amherst College

Lisa Harger Sweeney: Amherst College. Dropped off packing supplies, allowing students to pack and leave belongings in their dorm room, free shuttles to Logan, refund of R&B, lots of communication! Tusks Up!

Texas Christian University

Holly Harris Fruend: Texas Christian University students were on spring break when online classes were announced. The housing department is offering to go into the student’s rooms to get textbooks/laptops/notebooks and mail them home free.

Washington University in St. Louis

Eileen McManus Comettant: Very pleased with Washington University in St. Louis. They are shipping and/or storing at school expense all student belongings left in rooms. Only local students and those who were on campus allowed to pack up belongings and move out and only if they (and those helping them) had not travelled to certain areas.

They are emptying the dorms in the event they are needed to support the community. All actions considered with the safety and security of the students and community and in consultation with the infectious disease docs at the med school. Second consideration with regard to decisions is to ensure all students receive the necessary credits for their course work.

How Colleges Handle Crisis

Middlebury College

Denise Ryan Saviano: Loved my daughter’s response at Middlebury. It was one of the first schools to close; they advised the kids that they would probably not be returning to campus. They provided boxes and tape for stuff to remain for next year with directions on how to label. They provided storage – all boxes left in dorm room.

Northeastern University

Autumn Dawn Eudaly Galbreath: Northeastern University in Boston is prorating and refunding room and board costs to all the students who had to move out of the dorms, plus they provided free packing materials and free storage till September for students’ belongings that had to be moved out on short notice. It’s a huge financial hit for them.

I have been very impressed with how they have looked out for the students during all of this. It hasn’t been perfect and they have changed their decisions a couple of times, but the while situation has been changing by the hour. I think they have gone the extra mile to take care of the kids in the middle of a crazy situation. We’ve been very impressed.

Yale University

Sam Maser: Yale University has been seriously AMAZING throughout this whole thing. They were one of the first to close their campus. The communication has been calm and constant and clear. They paid to fly students home who couldn’t do so themselves. They are paying all students with campus jobs even though the students are not on campus and can’t do the work.

They are going into students’ on-campus rooms — only at the student’s request — and mailing the student anything vital the student left behind (laptop, tablet, passport — only essential things). They are rescuing pets kept illegally in dorms (with no penalty). And they have done more that I can’t even remember. I have never been happier that my daughter had the great fortune to be accepted to their class of 2023.

Some parents responded with negative experiences:

Vicki Lamb Kelley: I’ve been appalled at the schools that have asked students and parents to come back and move students out of the college. They are just encouraging more people to be around each other during a period when we need to distance ourselves.

Nany Treviño: TX AM Corpus Christi. Keeping campus open but going to online classes. Unsure how they’re keeping students from congregating in cafeteria library etc. If student wants to move out of dorm they’re charging $750 early termination. No word on prorated refund on other services. Not happy at this moment.

Classes Have Been Moved to Online Instruction

In order to keep students from losing the spring semester credits, colleges made the decision to move classes online. For most, it would be a logical transition. For some students with limited internet access or equipment, this could cause a problem.

Companies like Comcast and Spectrum have offered free and/or discounted service to students for 90 days but online access to learning is not the only issue.

Jennifer Brown Shepard whose student attends Auburn University had this to report about her student’s online experience: “I spied on two of her online classes so far. One was a 300-person boring lecture, the other was a 15 person interactive Spanish class. Both professors were in it 100% and my kid is very involved, committed, and the technology looks like it will be effective for this short period.”

Are all colleges prepared for this type of instruction? Inside Higher Ed addresses this issue in a recent article:

The movement to online has raised questions for some universities about exactly how much they are capable of with their existing technology. Depending on what things you already have in place, it could be a very difficult process.

Several universities have been circulating guidance to faculty about how to teach via online methods during an emergency. 

Sean Michael Morris, director of the Digital Pedagogy Lab at the University of Colorado at Denver and others have also emphasized that a transition to online teaching must keep classes accessible for students with disabilities and students who may lack access to the internet or other technology at home.

Colleges Are Pro-Rating Room and Board

Parents immediately had concerns about the room and board they had paid for the remainder of the year. Would they receive a refund? Colleges almost immediately began responding on their respective websites and emailing students about the question of a refund.

Parents began posting on our Paying for College 101 Facebook group comparing notes. Some colleges agreed to refund room and board ranging from 40-60%. Some colleges, like UVA, committed to a reimbursement for off-campus students.

Many parents were pleased to report that their students would be paid their work-study salaries. Oregon State University appears to be reimbursing prorated dorm fees for spring term and unused meal plans.

Colleges Are Going Test-Optional Due to Test Cancellations

Oregon State University recently announced it would be test optional for admission.

“First, for freshman applicants to the Fall, 2021 entering class, I’m pleased to announce that Oregon State will be test optional in admission. That’s been something we’ve been working on for a while, but it’s especially relevant now, as ACT and College Board have already cancelled test administrations this spring, and we don’t know how many more will be subject to cancellation in the future.”

Parents responded here with their experiences. Expect other colleges to follow suit, especially this year. Next year, they may return to their original policy of requiring test scores, but for now, it could benefit more students.

Colleges Are Extending Decision Deadlines

Some colleges are starting to change their normal decision dates from May 1 to June 1, giving students an opportunity to take more time to make their college decision.

Tamra Trimble Dixon whose student attends Southwestern University, Georgetown Texas said, “(Southwestern) was quick to extend decision date deadline to June 1 (July 15 for transfer students) now offering phone or Skype Financial Aid appointments, online group info sessions twice a day M-F, you can request an appointment to communicate with a faculty member, offering a “Virtual Resources” page for all kinds of different resources.

If your high school is closed and you send an unofficial copy of your transcript they’ll use it for admission and scholarship decisions and they’ll just need an official copy after your high school opens again.”

Here are two resources with lists of schools that have extended their decision deadlines, which will continue to be updated:…/1RIlDMwtaOmudGxMuZsuE…/mobilebasic…/college-admission-status-corona…/

Colleges Are Cancelling Graduation Ceremonies

As the weeks have progressed, colleges continue to cancel events normally scheduled for senior year: senior balls, senior trips and graduation ceremonies. College seniors and their parents are dealing with these disappointments.

Many students have started petitions and written letters to their college administrations arguing they deserve a graduation ceremony.

While some colleges are holding out hope, many have opted to postpone, hold ceremonies virtually or even cancel commencement for this year’s graduates. As you can imagine, this is a tough pill to swallow for these seniors and their families.

Nina Lopez whose student attends James Madison University said, “(James Madison University) has been awesome. Emails have been sent by the president and very informative keeping everyone in the loop. They aren’t cancelling commencement, just postponing it which, as a senior, is very important to me. They’re also refunding some housing and food costs. They’re giving on campus house until the end of next week to move out and if you are unable to you just have to submit a request.

Responses To Extreme Weather Conditions

Colleges have had to respond to all sorts of extreme weather conditions that can have an effect on their student population.

Preparations and plans are made each year to face these weather events. Evacuations are a critical, often clear-cut early step in a campus’ response to a massive, potentially life-threatening weather event.

In September of 2018, colleges in the Southeast were forced to evacuate students in the path of hurricane Florence. Colleges cancelled classes and evacuated students to safe shelters.

In February of 2015, two major snowstorms hit the Boston area causing college campuses to close for three days for each. Students who lived off campus were forced to remain at home.

Students on campus dealt with some facilities closing due to staff not being able to get into work. After the snowfall stopped, school was back in session, but students and faculty faced the challenge of making up classes and rescheduling organizational meetings.

Responses To An Active Shooter on Campus

On the morning of April 16, 2007, 32 people died at the hands of a mass shooter at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. From that day forward, parents of college students have had concern about their students’ safety on college campuses.

Colleges have to balance informing students and curbing fear. Colleges issue text alerts immediately when a shooter is spotted on campus.

Social media platforms and college message boards broadcast a “shelter-in-place” notice for students in the event of imminent danger. All colleges have protocols in place to warn and protect students.

Parents should always ask any questions involving school safety protocols and stay informed.

Responses To Health Risks

In the fall of 2018, college campuses around the country were battling mold—a health risk to their student population.

College campuses were forced to evacuate students from dorms and relocate to temporary housing while dealing with the mold problem. You should know if the college campus has dealt with mold problems and be informed about the health risks.

For more information, read our article: Mold in College Dorms: What You Need to Know

What Can Parents Learn From a College’s Response in a Crisis?

You want your student to attend a school that makes plans for crisis situations. You also want to know that a college understands the unusual circumstances and makes adjustments as needed to support their student body and the families they represent.

If a college was unsympathetic toward the student predicament during any crisis, you might want to reconsider this college as an option.

Understanding student needs and meeting those needs is a crucial component of choosing a college since the college will be your student’s home for the next four years.

A college that is overly concerned about the bottom line with little or no sympathy for the families of its students might be a cause for concern.

An interesting conversation was started on our Facebook group by Kimberly Ann:

“I saw someone posted a thought about now that colleges can’t host open houses or accepted student days we should pay attention to how colleges are handling the crisis. We are in the decision phase would anyone be willing to post opinions on good things their child’s college/university are doing to handle things? (Please no bashing of colleges we are in unprecedented times- if you are disappointed maybe just say College x is disappointing me).”

Parents responded. Here are a few of their comments:

Lee Fal: I’m thinking anyone that has a good local college choice should start putting going there at the top of the list.

Jessi Prentice: I recently read that Tulane gave students a week to move out, gave them supplies to pack, and are paying for 2 months of storage. It’s on our “shorter” list now.

Kris Caffyn: I think every state has different protocols and colleges are at the mercy of the information they get, just like the rest of us. I hardly think these trying times are the reflection of ANY college. They are all doing their best.

Melissa Broadman: Maybe this is not the best time for this post. Everyone is trying to work with information they have moment by moment and it will vary.Maybe it’s better to look at in review but essentially will not matter because this will be the catalyst for all kinds of changes to emergency protocol implementation for businesses large and small. Edited to add: what we are experiencing is unprecedented.

Kimberly Ann: I appreciate that opinion but the responses so far are showing me that good execution can and have been happening.

Melissa Brodman: The point is to hopefully avoid bashing. The issue remains that this should not cloud the bigger picture as policies will change because of this event. And hopefully, for the better. Disaster preparedness is a pointed question to be addressed. The same as people should have always asked in regards to Uni’s in tornado or hurricane vulnerable locations. You will now want to know what the overall plans will be in this situation. I am not surprised by the responses. I expected most institutions to have reacted as wisely and swiftly as they could, given the moment by moment data available to them.

Jeanne Walsh Panzarino: Would be interesting to note which schools are private and which are public, as well. Publics are tied to their state’s response and solutions, as well as their timeline. At least the 26 colleges in Georgia are.

As the dust settles and you evaluate college responses, take a hard look at how these colleges respond in crisis situations.

Your student’s health, both mental and physical, are important to you.

Choose a college that understands this and is willing to support your student in the midst of any crisis.






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