Colleges can Decide whether to Reopen without Student Surveys

Blog Post
Aug. 31, 2020

College reopening plans may be one of the most debated topics this summer. In May, Purdue University’s president Mitch Daniels wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post encouraging colleges and universities that have predominantly young populations to reopen, saying “Forty-five thousand young people—the biggest student population we’ve ever had—are telling us they want to be here this fall. To tell them, ‘Sorry, we are too incompetent or too fearful to figure out how to protect your elders, so you have to disrupt your education,’ would be a gross disservice to them and a default of our responsibility.”

But a few college presidents think otherwise. Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College in a piece in The Atlantic, argued that “rushing to reopen our society and our schools is a mistake that will ultimately result in hundreds of thousands of citizens falling sick and worse.”

While public health evidence is clear about the infection risk of colleges reopening and faculty opposition against the plans, many colleges and universities are still pushing forward with some sort of reopening (and many more are pivoting back online as infections surge either among students or in their communities). According to the tracker of the College Crisis Initiative (C2i), as of August 21, 994 out of nearly 3,000 colleges and universities in the sample have decided to stay online or primarily online in the Fall semester, 466 will opt for the hybrid model and 636 colleges and universities will have their students going back to campus this fall for fully or primarily in-person classes. Financial issues aside, another factor seems to back up this decision to reopen campus: student opinions.

Many colleges have long been using student surveys to make informed decisions that can improve student learning and experiences. Since the pandemic, the urge for colleges to listen to student voices has amplified. But how should colleges treat student opinions in this case, when their favorability for reopening is at odds with public health evidence? Student opinions about reopening should be used to inform colleges of how to support students more effectively in a remote fall, not a catalyst for reopening decisions.

Since the beginning of the lockdown in March, student surveys have tried to understand prospective student decisions for the fall, especially because the yield of a freshman class is so important to the current budget of the college and projections into the future. In a survey in April conducted by Carnegie Dartlet, more than half—58 percent-—of high school students who had already committed to a college or university would attend as normal if their campus was fully open with social distancing requirements (the opening Purdue is pursuing, and that University of North Carolina tried to pursue). If the fall semester is fully online, however, only a third of students would still attend normally. The remaining would need more support to attend; some would take a gap semester or year, go elsewhere, or cancel their college plans entirely.

In May, Niche, a website that provides college reviews, released a survey of its student users, asking them which fall scenarios would be appealing to them: 78 percent said in-person classes, and the number declined the more “online” colleges became for the fall. When it came to being fully online and remote for the fall, only 29 percent of students said that it was appealing, and 30 percent said they would transfer if their college continues online.

And a recent survey conducted by the United Negro College Fund of its private nonprofit Historically Black Colleges and Universities members, shows that 50 percent of students prefer a return to campus for the fall semester, 33 percent prefer in-person and online class option, while only 17 percent say they prefer fully-online option.

It’s understandable why students in these surveys strongly prefer a return to campus in the fall—we all want to return back to the way things were. The unexpected campus closure and pivot to online learning last spring left many students high and dry. Students reported lacking the technology necessary to continue their classes, dealing with food insecurity, and facing worsening mental health problems. For many, last spring was also the first time they took their classes online, and the first time many faculty taught online. For these students, they are more likely to think that online classes are less effective than in-person classes when it comes to helping students develop critical thinking, or acquire knowledge in a particular area. After all, remote learning impedes the personal interaction and the connection with college campuses that many institutions have promised.

But regardless of what the students think or feel about returning to campus, the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding campus community must come first. Students, faculty, and staff should only return to campus when it’s safe to do so. It would be unwise for colleges to say they will open because students want to, despite the risk of infection on campus.

Importantly, it’s worth noting that a significant amount of students feel uncomfortable with reopening. In a forthcoming New America and Third Way representative survey of current undergraduate students, of those students who attend colleges and universities that will have a mix of online and face-to-face classes, 38 percent said they would choose to attend fully online.

And what is often missing from the conversation about what students want for the fall, is the reality of America’s diverse student population and the granularity of their responses. Indeed, few surveys even accurately capture the diversity of college students-—often surveying the easiest-to-reach populations: 18-22, attending four-year residential colleges and universities. For those surveys that provide the breakdown among different demographics, students from minority groups are more likely to feel uncomfortable about the prospect of an on campus or partially on campus fall semester. In the Carnegie Dartlet survey, for example, female, low-income high school seniors are more likely to defer or cancel their enrollment if their campuses are open in the fall without any COVID adjustments. In the New America and Third Way’s survey, caregiving students (who have dependents) and Latinx students were much more likely to want to attend fully online even if their institution was offering a mix of online and in person classes.

As the fall semester begins, one college after another that decided to stay open will suspend their reopening plans. Only time will tell if any college will make it through the semester without deciding to shift fully online. Listening to students is always important, but colleges shouldn’t use that as an excuse to make poor, unethical decisions that put students, faculty, staff, and their communities at risk. Instead, they must take into consideration what students want, and communicate effectively when their decisions are contrary to popular opinion on campus. When it comes to a public health crisis, colleges need to lead, not follow.

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