Over half of colleges plan to reopen for in-person instruction this fall, but living and learning on campus will look a lot different than it did pre-pandemic.

Colleges Juggle Fall 2020 Reopening Plans


  • Most colleges plan to reopen for fall 2020, with some proposing a hybrid model.
  • Fall enrollment numbers hold steady, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Many students will pay regular tuition for online edu, despite suing for reimbursement.
  • Under intense pressure to reopen, schools have created contingency plans.

Since the coronavirus outbreak sent college students home earlier this year, politicians, professors, and school leaders have debated whether and how campuses should reopen for the fall term. Even now, people remain divided.

President Donald Trump and his administration have put pressure on schools to fully reopen for several months, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cautions against it. According to the agency's latest undistributed guidelines, returning to in-person education — at full attendance and without any social distancing measures in place — represents the "highest risk" for spreading the coronavirus.

These reopening guidelines, marked "For Internal Use Only" and obtained by The New York Times, claim that the "lowest risk" option would be for schools to offer online-only classes, whereas the "highest risk" would be to hold "full-sized in-person classes, activities, and events."

According to the CDC, returning to in-person education this fall represents the “highest risk” for spreading the coronavirus.

The Trump administration called the CDC's school guidelines "too tough," arguing that the recommended measures would be costly. Consequently, the guidelines have not been made available to schools.

Beginning next month, thousands of U.S. colleges will roll out their individual fall 2020 plans. Most intend to reopen, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education's ongoing college reopening list.

More than half of colleges are planning for an in-person fall semester, and another 30% are proposing a hybrid model. Just 10% are preparing for completely online instruction, though that number includes big-name schools like Harvard and the California State University — the country's largest public university system.

Fall College Enrollment Numbers Hold Steady

Many have wondered whether students would return to campuses should they reopen this fall. Early numbers indicate there won't be much, if any, change from previous academic years.

A range of private and public universities surveyed by Inside Higher Ed report meeting and even exceeding fall enrollment goals set before the pandemic, while a poll from April found that over 40% of parents were uncertain whether they would support their college-aged child attending an online fall term.

Despite the coronavirus outbreak, many colleges have seen little to no decline in student fall enrollment numbers.

Meanwhile, among students, taking a gap year has experienced a resurgence in popularity. At one point, 16% of high school seniors said they planned on taking a gap year — that's five times the percentage of high schoolers who considered doing the same in 2019.

Despite major changes to campus life due to COVID-19, most students will be navigating them in person.

This goes for international students, too. Federal guidelines announced in early July would have forced many international students to leave the country or transfer to another college if their classes were moved online. However, following a widely publicized Harvard/MIT lawsuit, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently announced that foreign students will be allowed to stay, even if they don't take any in-person classes this fall.

Most Colleges Plan on Charging Full Tuition

Students have organized over 150 lawsuits against colleges asking for tuition refunds for winter and spring terms. U.S. colleges pivoted to online education for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year after closing to contain the spread of COVID-19. Students say the online experience doesn't merit an on-campus price tag.

Now, colleges that plan to continue partially or completely online next year also face pressure to lower tuition rates. Many colleges can't afford to issue refund checks or lower tuition. To lure students back, a few colleges are offering tuition discounts. Many, however, are holding tuition steady, and others are even raising their prices.

The higher rates charged for on-campus credits keep many colleges running. The more vulnerable the college, the more it depends on tuition income.

Colleges normally rely heavily on student tuition, rather than government aid or donor networks. The higher rates charged for on-campus credits keep many colleges running. The more vulnerable the college, the more it depends on tuition income.

The tuition-dependent schools that are hurting the most during the nationwide shutdown include several historically Black colleges and universities, and regional public universities that primarily serve underprivileged students.

The New Normal for Fall 2020

The current public health crisis will reshape how students live and learn on campus. CDC guidelines favor college plans that include virtual services, reduced in-person class sizes, and options for in-person and virtual learning.

Amid competing views and priorities, many colleges have not yet finalized their reopening plans. Some made decisions and then backtracked, citing new surges in cases. Most schools say they will ask students and faculty to get tested for COVID-19 when they arrive on campus and require them to follow social distancing rules, including self-isolation should they test positive for the coronavirus.

Plans include ending the fall semester before Thanksgiving and bringing back only students who need access to specialized equipment.

Some institutions plan to bring back a limited number of on-campus offerings and prioritize students whose academic programs depend on specialized equipment. Alternating schedules, block scheduling, and ad hoc reopening plans aim to disperse what could otherwise be a flood of returning students.

Several schools, including the University of Mississippi and Virginia Tech, say they will end the fall term before Thanksgiving to avoid the expected reemergence of the coronavirus in late fall.

In addition to allowing only some students back on campus, colleges plan to lower dormitory occupancy and, in some cases, establish "social cohort groups" to reduce interactions between students.

While most think of college campuses as breeding grounds for a viral resurgence, research from Cornell University shows that not reopening would actually result in more cases. Campuses' youthful communities, where students under 30 make up the bulk of the population, could make them the perfect places to build herd immunity.

To mitigate risk, colleges plan for a new normal. In addition to hybrid learning and staggered schedules, students can expect plexiglass barriers, new social conduct rules, and grab-and-go meal stations — possibly even food prepared and delivered by robots.

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing higher education to evolve at a faster pace. Robot chefs and virtual universities both feel futuristic, but while some safety measures may be temporary, online education is here to stay.