As COVID-19 Forces Students to Stay Home, Local Colleges Look to Promote Online Coursework

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Schools are now beginning to grapple with how social distancing imposed by the novel coronavirus is going to impact their fall semester, possibly putting universities that rely on a geographically diverse cohort at a disadvantage.

With stay-at-home orders varying by state, and no clear timeline on when it may be safe or practical for institutions to re-open their doors to students, some may be reconsidering their plans for the fall. Further, students and families are calling into question whether it’s reasonable to pay full tuition at more expensive universities for solely online courses.

Deborah Shames, an independent educational consultant, said that while the decision about whether to attend college next year could be influenced by the financial toll that COVID-19 is taking, families and students may also be thinking about the logistics of what remote learning will look like for a four-year school, and whether they’d be better served — and save money — by attending a school closer to home.

“Families are definitely concerned about why [they would] spend this money for the kid to sit in my kitchen to take a class that is being offered by a private university,” she said.

Should students decide to focus on other priorities like helping their families deal with the fallout from coronavirus or look for short-term work to save up money in the coming weeks and months, Shames questioned how universities will respond to a potential increase in deferment requests.

For example, if a small school that enrolls around 2,400 students allowed 20% of the incoming class to defer, it could create a snowball effect for subsequent cohorts as institutions juggle admissions numbers down the road, she explained.

Ultimately, Shames said she does not believe that students will radically change their overall decision to enroll in higher education, but that short-term plans — such as where and when to enroll — will be somewhat malleable depending on the societal impact of COVID-19. 

“I think that it has to create some mental flexibility, and flexibility in families in terms of what's going to be right from a student perspective,” she said. “What's going to be right for me, and for my family.”

How COVID-19 Is Shaping Institutions’ Implementation of Remote Learning

David Baime, senior vice president of government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) said that uncertainty around enrollment is a huge concern.

“People are really concerned about enrollments and the pandemic is just so disruptive in so many ways,” he said. “College going, which should normally expect to pick up during a recession, is just an open proposition at this point in time.”

The logistical concerns are also being echoed on campus as students themselves question the quality of online learning at elite institutions, where some argue much of the value is gained from face-to-face interactions.

The editorial board of The Harvard Crimson — the university’s student newspaper — in a recent opinion piece urged both the university president and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences to exercise caution in planning for the fall semester.

A Harvard education “simply cannot be replaced by classes over Zoom. Without the physical gathering of students and professors, much is lost,” the board wrote.

Though some institutions, such as Purdue University, have publicly announced plans to return to campus this fall, others are preparing for a fully online fall semester — or at least a fall semester that begins online. Regardless, many universities are recognizing the need to bolster their online programs. 

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) — a private nonprofit institution offering undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs to more than 3,000 on campus, and over 135,000 online students — recently announced that it plans to offer a one-time “Innovation Scholarship” to cover 100% of first-year tuition for all campus-based freshmen, who would take classes online while living on campus.

“We knew that a traditional college education was increasingly out of reach for a majority of Americans before the COVID-19 pandemic hit,” said SNHU President Paul LeBlanc, in a statement. “Now, with the nation facing massive unemployment, there are even more students who find themselves unable to afford an on-campus experience.”

In order to further combat the financial strain of COVID-19 the university also plans to reduce tuition by 61%, down to $10,000 per year. Starting in the fall of 2021, the university plans to offer students a number of options for the delivery of their education, such as taking courses online while living on campus, taking courses online with face-to-face support from faculty in a hybrid model, or taking courses through a project-based model “with learning coaches and other academic supports” also with the option to live on campus.

This sort of approach is unlikely to be unique. 

In a webinar hosted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan Institute, Susan Cates, CEO of the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE), said she believes every university is preparing for online delivery and thinking about virtual programs. 

“That is a conversation that I imagine is happening on every university campus around the country. It's certainly happening,” she said. “[Colleges and universities] are absolutely, and with urgency, focused on how [to] support our faculty to prepare for a fall that is likely to, at minimum, have disruption built into it, and at worst be delivered fully online.”

Still, the financial distress that may lead students to second-guess their enrollment plans has led some think tanks to call for the federal government to subsidize tuition costs for incoming freshmen to incentivize them to begin their higher education studies — even if they have to begin remotely. 

“Even if some colleges manage to physically open in the fall, students may be tempted to postpone enrollment for financial or health reasons. But data show students who stop out for a year are far less likely to graduate. This would mean a loss of human capital neither the students themselves nor the economy can well afford,” Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson wrote for the Urban Institute. “And if too many students stop out, a significant number of colleges won’t be around to greet them a year later. If higher education institutions don’t survive the crisis, new ones will not easily emerge to educate the students who are shut out.”

Institutions are already facing potentially devastating public funding cuts in the wake of the economic downturn, which could further damage the prospects of vulnerable populations within the community college system.

While enrollment plans are up in the air, Baime said that amid this uncertainty, community colleges are responding to COVID-19 in a positive manner and that their investments in online learning and flexibility of programs are paying off.

“They certainly had more time to plan for it and frankly make the curriculum even stronger in terms of the programs,” Baime said. 

By being able to transition online and attract students from local communities, Baime said the crisis is shining a light on the value of community colleges — while many may be strapped for resources, they are also well positioned to accommodate the changing needs of students.

“This crisis, as terrible as it is in many ways, it has really shown the kind of the value of community colleges … to respond quickly to changing circumstances. I think that that really does deserve to be emphasized,” Baime said.

On the Ground with Community Colleges

Dr. Jeff Rafn — president of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, a public technical school that serves more than 41,000 students at nine campuses — said COVID-19 has introduced a number of challenges for the school, but that they were successful in converting about 90% of their courses for the current academic year to an online format.

With fall online registration available through June, Rafn said enrollment is likely to increase — but he expects that it may come at the expense of on-campus enrollment. While COVID will be responsible for this immediate shift, Rafn anticipates that the future of higher education will have more of an online influence.

“I actually think that the mechanism, the mode of instruction of the future is not really going to be either learning face-to-face or online, but there's going to be a combination. They're going to be what we call hybrid courses,” he said. 

Rafn is already preparing for what the fall semester should look like if social distancing protocols continue. One plan is to run additional lab courses, in which they can reduce the number of students per classroom to adhere to the state and federal guidelines.

The school has also begun implementing an eight week-session with the first round occuring in the fall, a change that was discussed before the COVID outbreak. The structure, he said, will allow more flexibility to “frontload” online instruction and leave time toward the end of the session for hands-on learning “if that’s necessary.”

In a post-COVID world, Rafn anticipates student behavior to gradually change and that online coursework will proliferate.

“One of the things that we're seeing with our students [is] that many of them who thought they couldn't take courses successfully online or couldn't use the technology are finding out that they can, and they can be successful,” Rafn said. “I think that's going to increase the desire to take some of those courses in that way.”

Kim Olson, dean of service and academic planning at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wisconsin said she has also noticed an increase in online enrollment of about 12% for summer registrations.

“That's been telling in terms of a transition for folks,” she said. 

With the increased interest in online learning, Olson said her institution has been able to innovate and look into how it can better tailor programs, but the prospect of flexible learning techniques is nothing new to the college.

“We have a population of students that isn't necessarily that traditional college student that just is focusing on their education,” Olson said. “We have a population of students that has had work commitments, family commitments — they're just at different points in their life. So having flexible learning options has been really important for us.”

In the aftermath of the health crisis, Olson said she anticipates the increase in online enrollment will come from two swaths of students — those who want to stay closer to home, and those who have become unemployed as a result of the pandemic.

The school plans to tailor programs to allow workers to quickly reenter the workforce and expand on opportunities for transfer credits.

Olson also said that community colleges are well-positioned to create transfer options for students who decided to defer enrollment at other institutions.

The Wisconsin Technical College System and the University of Wisconsin system, Olson said,have a transfer agreement that currently ensures a minimum of 30 credits of general education courses transfer between the two systems, though the systems are working to increase that number to about 70 to 72.

Fox Valley Technical College also works with private colleges, Olson said, and aims to continue expanding opportunities for transfer agreements for general studies as well as technical courses. 

“The community colleges are really positioned to help our communities navigate this, whether it's from a credit bearing program perspective, whether it's from business and industry trainings, whether it's helping to find resources and finances in the community to help students with education,” Olson said. “We are here and we are poised to help these students navigate this really challenging time.”

 

Publication Date: 4/28/2020


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