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American colleges: Will they go live this fall? Or only go virtual?

Written By | May 9, 2020
American colleges, coronavirus

Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay.

WASHINGTON –  Will my college open up again this fall? I field this question again and again when I run into high school seniors or students already enrolled in college. Frankly, when it comes to the fall semester, academic year 2020-2021, American colleges and universities fin this question is impossible to answer at the moment. That’s because it’s one of those questions for which A. There is no definitive answer; and B. Developing any valid answer at all is a work in progress. Right now, given the coronavirus crisis, there are too many variables.

What we’ll likely see during the upcoming fall semester, however is that one size doesn’t fit all. Hundreds of different colleges will create hundreds of different answers. So let’s just take a look at the most likely scenarios parents and students are likely to see.

American colleges and universities don’t have a clue. But they’re working on the issue

American colleges and universities in general have, at the moment, little clue as to how they’ll tackle the coronavirus issue. Summer sessions are a mess, whether online or (hopefully but dubious) classroom oriented. Or if they’re held at all.

That said, the focus of colleges and universities now is mostly geared toward the fall semester. But once again, there are probably as many potential, temporary solutions to this coronavirus-caused problem as there are colleges and universities in the US.

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I expect that most universities possessing any administrative sense at all will broadcast the rules for their fall semesters some time in June. Any information provided later than that makes it impossible for students to plan ahead.

Some colleges and universities will likely try to go all-online for the fall semester, with students returning to live campus action in the spring. Others might try some hybrid solution. Still others might try to re-open in the fall with normal, physical class schedules.

Enter an armada of Trial Lawyers

However, given the ironclad Rule of Lawyers in the US at least, I suspect that many of the choices American colleges might settle on will be governed by a fear of lawsuits. As in, what happens if a wave of illness suddenly hit those campuses that may have fully re-opened in the fall?

Will students and / or parents start suing various colleges if mass quantities of students start coming down with the *han flu. Consider that university administrators are not known these days for their boldness and courage. Rather than risk a barrage of potential lawsuits, these college bosses will likely allow legal circumstances to outweigh practical considerations.

Add some serious budgetary situations

On the other hand, many American colleges today are living on the financial margins. They desperately need student bodies to fill (and pay for) all those dorm rooms, meal plans and tuition bills. If they don’t get enough revenue, they’ll go under. And online-semesters are only a partial solution to holding classes (somehow) and collecting desperately needed tuition fees.

My guess is that online-only college students will resist or even boycott colleges that want to charge full freight for tuition in the fall. But at the same time, these institutions still won’t be able to collect room and board fees. They might even need to forego those dreaded “student activities fees,” most of which go to fund ideologically oriented activities and invited speakers anyway.

In other words, refer back to paragraph 1 above. At this precise moment, few if any administrators at American colleges  know exactly what they’re going to do this fall. Which means that all students are up in the air right now. But administrators will have to announce some sort of plan very soon. Otherwise, they’ll court pure chaos this fall.

Time for a sabbatical?

I’m hearing that a substantial number of students might choose to take a bye on the fall semester. Or perhaps they’ll even forget about classes during academic year 2000–2001 or until things settle down. A coronavirus-forced sabbatical could theoretically serve as a great opportunity to get a job, make some money, or travel the world with a backpack or bike.

Except for one thing.

Both these “opt out” choices may not unfold the way everyone thinks.

As for getting a job, know that most existing jobs will go to all those currently laid-off employees first before any students get hired.

And as for world travel? Where can you go if countries go on and off lockdown with little notice or if few if any airlines are flying in the second half of 2020?

So what’s a definitive answer to the question?

When it comes to definitive answers, what you’ve just read is the best anyone can do for now. At least insofar as American colleges are concerned.

Everything about college schedules for the upcoming fall semester amounts to speculation right now.  This has to change. But no one seems to know when.

This strange coronavirus moment in our history has little in the way of modern precedents. So most colleges are still winging it right now.

Our only advice at this point: If you don’t hear by, say, June 15 from the college you attend or plan to attend this fall (assuming you’ve been accepted), start getting on the phone to contact the appropriate college administrator. Then, push for the real answer you deserve.

Colleges will have to start setting schedules and deadlines. And soon. But you’ll need to do that, too.

–Headline image: Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay.



Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17