Updated: Jul 28, 2020
This upcoming fall semester will be unlike anything we have ever seen. While universities and students received a taste of our (hopefully temporary) altered reality this past spring semester, the situation was different. The academic year was over 66% of the way complete for most universities, so while going online for the final third wasn’t ideal, it was at least bearable to some degree.
That won’t be the case when the academic school year begins to kick off next month. Many students are suddenly asking more questions, like should I even enroll in classes this fall or take some time off instead? universities are in an even more precarious position as they are forced to balance risks to students’ health against the financial and logistical downsides to keeping their classes online for another semester.
Anyone who suggests that there are obvious answers for universities is being overly simplistic and frankly a bit pretentious. It’s easy to lob criticism at governors and school officials when you have no real skin in the game. It’s much more difficult to be in the arena making decisions when there are no easy decisions available and every option has clear downsides.
As a somewhat recent college graduate and author of a best-selling book on college, I have begun to receive inquiries from school administrators and faculty on how to approach this fall semester. Given I can only meet with a limited amount of individuals directly, I wanted to put together a piece that laid out my advice for how universities should approach this fall semester.
The key question
Before I dive into any further advice let me start by addressing the elephant in the room: Should your university open in Fall?
My answer to that question is “yes”, but with a number of caveats.
Just based on the previous sentence alone, there will be people that dismiss what I have to say, but for those willing to listen, allow me to explain. One of the biggest mistakes we have consistently made throughout this pandemic is that we haven’t considered the 2nd and 3rd order effects of the decisions we make.
If we close campuses in the fall, we will be sending millions of young adults back into their parents’ houses. Many of these households contain parents and grandparents who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. The data clearly shows that the coronavirus hits older demographics much harder than college-aged students. And common sense tells me that a bunch of 18 to 21 year-olds aren’t going to socially distance to perfection for another 6 months. The end result is that we are actively putting millions of infection vectors back into the homes of some of the most vulnerable. We’ve already begun to see this happening around the country as young people begin to become fatigued and assume more risk, and the outcomes can be dreadful.
Advocates for completely closing off campuses, argue that if you allow students to be back on campus they won’t follow rules and will congregate/socialize to an extreme. A spike in certain college towns could be ruinous, given the lack of ICU beds available. My response is if you can’t trust students to social distance and take precautionary measures on campus, then what makes you think they are going to do the same back in their hometowns? Many of these towns also run this risk if students are kept at home and don't follow guidelines.
One of the core aspects of college is learning what it means to take on more responsibility and make the transition to adulthood. I believe that with some smart measures put into place, students will act responsibly enough on campus to prevent major outbreaks on every campus.
That is why I believe we should be opening up campuses at a level that allows at least a portion of the students to continue to remain on campus. In terms of classes, that is a different situation. For classroom instruction, we will need a more innovative and hybrid approach, which I will lay out the details for in the following paragraphs.
Open your campus to at least a portion of students in Fall 2020.
Only open the dorms at a capacity that ensures that every student has their own bedroom, and has at least a 30 min gap in morning and night to be in bathrooms alone.
Send out a letter to all building managers around your campus encouraging them to only rent out entire rooms to students.
Do not host classes of any sort for 14 days before the official end of the semester. This will give students enough time to quarantine before traveling back home.
Put your “customers” first
I’ve worked at two prestigious Silicon Valley tech companies in Intuit and LinkedIn. The one thing they both shared in common is that they obsessed over their customers. In the business world, if you don’t solve real problems or needs for your customers you will not survive, period.
For too long, universities have escaped this reality by using the narrative that "a 4-year degree is the primary path the American dream", as a means to paper over the expanding pains of their student base.
Universities need to snap out of this mindset and start treating students and parents like who they really are, customers who can walk away if they choose. The first step is to actually seek feedback, even if it’s critical. This information can be used to help improve your university’s services or at the very least allow you to acknowledge what the gaps are and make students and parents feel heard.
It’s also crucial that at a difficult time like the one at hand, that you offer as much flexibility as possible. Allow freshmen to defer entry if needed. Refund tuition to students who no longer want to attend in Fall. This may lead to severe short term pain, but people will take notice and in the long term it will significantly bolster your brand.
Send out a survey to students asking them to rate their online classes last spring and how they can be improved.
Send out a survey to parents asking them what their biggest concerns are for this fall semester.
Set up a monthly newsletter and an online University ‘all-hands’ to provide updates on how the rest of the school year is looking.
Allow students to defer entry or request tuition reimbursement.
Universities that think they are going to have a normal classroom experience are delusional. Putting over 100 students shoulder-to-shoulder in a lecture hall with no windows is a recipe for disaster. Instead, universities need to embrace innovative and creative solutions to minimize the spread of disease.
This starts with putting a hard cap on how many students you allow back on campus. On top of the dorm capacity guidelines you should also have guidelines for classes. For instance, only host class sizes that allow each student in the classroom to have 6 feet of space. If this means setting up a schedule where cohorts of students alternate which days they come in, so be it.
Universities in warmer climates also have another advantage, which is the ability to host classes outside. Invest in tents and chairs, and set up outdoor lecture halls on campus greens and parking lots. Having an open-air learning environment is one of the best things you can do to stop the spread of the virus.
There’s no perfect way to stop the virus but we do have enough information available that universities should be able to adjust their protocols as needed.
Mandate masks be worn in classrooms and between passing periods.
Equip rooms with sanitation supplies for students to grab upon entry.
Prioritize classes that benefit the most from in-person teaching. This includes labs and visual-based courses.
Set up outdoor classrooms and use them for as long as weather allows.
Lean into the value props you can control
Let’s not kid ourselves, students don’t enroll in college just for the education. Most of the information is available for free online. What they really come for is the holistic experience of living on a campus while receiving that education. That poses a serious problem for the students that have to take classes online this semester.
As a university this is a perfect opportunity to reassess your value props. Maybe you can’t control the college experience, and your learning experience may also take a significant hit by moving online. However, there are more value props available than most universities consider. A massive one is helping students find professional success.
You should be doing everything in your power to help students find job opportunities this fall. Tap into your alumni networks and help facilitate virtual conversations between alumni and students. Host free online events around resume creation and networking tips. Reach out to your corporate partners and figure out how to set up valuable online career fairs.
This is a significant benefit that students can’t get anywhere else and that universities are uniquely positioned to deliver on. You should absolutely be leaning into this area, especially since job and internship placement is top of mind for many students as we grapple with what is undoubtedly becoming a recession in the United States.
Set up virtual career fairs with your corporate partners, by leveraging tools such as Zoom or Bluejeans.
Connect every student with at least one alumni in their field on LinkedIn or via email.
Hire more college counselors to help make career coaching services more available.
I will end by saying this, the struggle against the coronavirus is an ongoing battle. Because this is a novel virus, we learn new information with each passing day. It is critical that university administrators take into account each new piece of information and act accordingly.
One of our great strengths as a nation is that we consist of states that each have their own unique characteristics and approaches for combating the virus. Universities should do what Governors haven’t been able to do, which is learning smartly from each other rather than looking to make it a competition.
A successful fall semester would be one in which we begin with a wide variety of tactics in place, and then Universities quickly coalesce around the ones that work best. Nobody has all of the answers right now, but if we stay logical, follow the data and work on a unified front, we will find a way through this semester together.
If you enjoyed this article you can read about this topic in more depth in my best-selling book Modern College, which is available on Amazon.