This week a number of colleges announced plans to open this fall for in-person courses. If that doesn’t serve as a reminder that colleges are a business, then I don’t know what would.
What’s with the announcements? Have some colleges discovered magical cures for COVID? Or is it just that May 1 is the traditional decision date and about 40% of college-bound high school seniors have not yet made a deposit at a four-year college?
Should you accept admission at a school that says it will open this fall for in-person classes and decline at one that hasn’t committed to doing so? Probably not without researching how they plan to address a potential coronavirus outbreak on campus. It’s worth remembering that schools get as much as 15% of their revenue from housing and meal plans, millions of dollars from fall sports and varying levels of additional revenue streams from on-campus events such as summer camps, reunions, lecture series and more. So of course they want students back on campus. Whether it’s realistic to expect students to come is an entirely different question.
If coming to campus this fall is a top priority in your decision-making process, you should be asking prospective schools how they would manage an outbreak of COVID-19 on campus– do they have adequate housing to isolate students to prevent the spread? Do their physical spaces including dining facilities allow for social distancing? Do they have adequate medical facilities to handle an outbreak? And while students may see themselves as more or less invulnerable in this outbreak (despite mounting evidence to the contrary), do their professors and other faculty and staff– many of whom are in more vulnerable demographics– also want to take on the risk of exposure?
Every school is different, and every student has a different set of resources available to them in navigating this environment. For example, this fall my son will be in an apartment in which he has a private room with an en suite bathroom. His campus has large outdoor spaces that can accommodate social distancing, and Arizona lends itself to being outdoors year-round. His university is considering a hybrid model where lectures will continue to be online if need be. My daughter, on the other hand, is scheduled to live in a double-room in a dorm with a bathroom shared by seven other students and meals in dining halls. Her dorm has several large living room spaces that tend to be occupied by large numbers of students, especially in Chicago winters where going outdoors is on a needs-only basis.
All by way of saying, do your homework rather than taking a school’s statements on fall plans at face value. And remember, when you commit to a school, your intent is to commit there for four years. What happens this fall is significant, but should not be the only factor in your decision.