Colleges Are Considering These Options for Fall 2020

Colleges Are Considering These Options for Fall 2020

If we’ve learned one thing about COVID-19, it’s that we need to expect the unexpected.

So much so, that as Siri says (repeatedly) when we’ve taken a wrong turn, “recalculating” has become a way of life.

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Which scenario shakes out remains to be seen.  Here’s a roundup of what we know so far.


Colleges’ Plans For the School Year…What Are They?


Students and parents want to know what a school’s plan is sooner rather than later.

But making a decision too quickly could mean everything has to be undone at the last minute if cases surge.

It really all depends on a combination of what the CDC recommends, and what the governor of the state the school is in mandates. 

In a story by NPR, Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist and physician at Yale University who is studying how the coronavirus spreads, cautioned, “I don’t think there’s any scenario under which it’s business as usual on American college campuses in the fall.”  


Once a school decides what to do, they’ll have to decide how and if the cost of attending will change. In all likelihood, it won’t be reduced in the near future because schools are facing enormous operating expenses and income loss at the same time. 

“On one end of the equation,” says NPR, “colleges are spending money to take classes online, in some situations purchasing software, training professors or outsourcing to online-only institutions. That’s on top of refunds for room and board and parts of tuition. On the other side, money isn’t coming back in, in the form of expected tuition and revenue from events such as athletics, conferences on campus and summer camps.” 

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Some public colleges and universities are starting to see their budgets cut with surprising speed, as states reckon with the economic fallout of the pandemic.

“The cuts are deep and swift—and taking effect immediately, not next fiscal year. They will hit student programs as well as capital projects and staff salaries, university administrators said.”

For private schools, which charge the highest tuition, there will be more pressure to offer in-person classes, since most students who attend those schools expect a full on-campus experience. 

In a story by The Washington Post, Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, weighed in: “It’s revenue pressure, and the sense that ‘if we’re the one that doesn’t open, we lose our share of the market permanently.’” 

Elizabeth Zehner, a mom with two children in college, said in the same Washington Post story: “When you save their entire lives to send them to this fabulous experience — the idyllic location, the labs, small discussion groups — and you’re writing this huge check for this comprehensive experience — to say that’s equivalent to an online course? . . . It’s not true.” Zehner said she would suggest that her daughters take the fall semester off if campuses aren’t open. “For us, it’s not worth the financial sacrifice.”


Options and Dilemmas

Weighing the safety and well-being of students and staff, and balancing it with a school’s financial dilemmas, versus a student’s perceived value, means schools need to be ready with a number of possible opening scenarios for the fall–some more complicated than others.

Overall, other than hoping school resumes as normal, there are three main trends emerging:

  • Going online for the fall
  • Delaying the start of the school year
  • Creating a hybrid plan, such as reducing the number of courses offered on campus and having the rest be online; staggering who can attend face-to-face classes in the fall (freshmen only, or grad students only, while other students remain online)

In a survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), around 60% of colleges are thinking about only holding classes online in the fall or reducing the number of classes they offer face-to-face.

Nearly 75% are considering increasing online classes.

What is clear is that nobody wants to be the first to make any major decisions at this point. That said, some schools have addressed potential plans, and a few have narrowed theirs down to one or two scenarios, so that students have some indication of how things might work.

Social distancing means that one of the most challenging aspects of being on campus in the fall will be student housing. Even if you space classrooms,  it’s not possible for most schools to offer single dorm rooms, so if the virus is still active, on-campus residency will be difficult. 

For schools that resume face-to-face classes, some are considering testing students for COVID and/or antibodies.

In their newsletter, Inside Higher Education reports: “Purdue University president Mitch Daniels sent a letter to the university’s constituents this week explaining that the administration is looking at separating people by age and vulnerability and limiting class sizes in the fall.”

Although Southern New Hampshire University has not said whether it plans to reopen in the fall, first-year students who start in-person there “will get a full-tuition scholarship and take their classes online while living on campus or commuting,” according to Education Dive.

The school also hopes to cut annual campus-based tuition by “61% to $10,000 by 2021.” 

Additional notes from Education Dive: 

California State University Fullerton was reported to have decided it would start the fall semester online and loosen restrictions as the pandemic wanes; Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Catholic college in Ohio, said it will cover the fall 2020 semester tuition costs remaining after scholarships and grants have been applied for new full-time undergraduates enrolled in campus-based programs, including transfer students; and Davidson College, in North Carolina, is letting students defer tuition for up to a year.

Some other ideas that might work, according to Inside Higher Ed: 

HyFlex Model

“Courses would be taught both face-to-face and online by the same instructor at the same time. Students could choose to return to campus or stay home. Those on campus could be assigned certain class slots when face-to-face is an option, allowing the schools greater control of social distancing in the classroom.”

Structured Gap Year

“Students could propose project-based experiences that could be implemented and managed while social distancing rules are still in place.” 

A Block Plan

“Students would take one course at a time during much shorter (three or four weeks) sessions or blocks, run consecutively for the entire semester.”

A Low-Residency Model

“Students would come to campus for intensive face-to-face experiences and then return home to complete the semester online. Students would be brought to campus in iterative waves.” 

Modified Tutorial Model

“Students would take a common online lecture session. Faculty and/or TAs would then meet with small groups of students in tutorials that would allow for social distancing to be employed.” 

Regardless of which plan is ultimately chosen by each school, it will be a first for everyone involved.

And flexibility on the part of the school, and the student, will be the key to its success.

To stay on top of the latest news, the Chronicle of Higher Education is keeping a list of colleges’ plans for the fall.






Melissa T. Shultz

Melissa T. Shultz is a writer, and the acquisitions editor for Jim Donovan Literary, an agency that represents book authors. She's written about health and parenting for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Reader's Digest, AARP’s The Girlfriend, AARP’s Disrupt Aging, Next Avenue, NBC’s and many other publications. Her memoir/self-help book From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life was published by Sourcebooks in 2016.