Colleges and students want campuses to reopen, but the threat of a coronavirus resurgence means changing the school year and keeping some education online.

COVID-19 Updates:

Will College Campuses Reopen in the Fall?


  • Students and schools alike are trying to plan for fall 2020 amid uncertainty.
  • Colleges could lose students by staying closed, but risk reigniting coronavirus by opening.
  • A handful of colleges have announced campus closures for fall, but more are likely to follow.

College campuses have closed before now. Boston University made the call back in April 2013 after the Boston Marathon bombing. Early this April, the university was among the first to announce plans to reopen its campus for fall term, though it may have to wait until January 2021 depending on how the coronavirus pandemic plays out.

The timeline for campuses reopening is up in the air. Hesitant to make announcements that might turn away students, the majority of colleges have not publicly discussed extending campus closures beyond the spring. Only 5% of U.S. colleges had committed to an online fall term as of early April.

[The] majority of colleges have not publicly discussed extending campus closures beyond the spring. Only 5% of U.S. colleges had committed to an online fall term as of early April.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is tracking colleges' reopening plans. Ultimately, these plans depend on the decisions of state governors and would be delayed by a viral resurgence. While colleges may be the perfect place to start building up herd immunity, they could also reignite the virus.

Students, staff, and faculty of all ages and health backgrounds would be converging on campus just in time for temperatures to dip. Four of the seven known coronaviruses are "sharply seasonal," though scientists do not yet know if that is true of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

An empty brick concourse on a university campus is littered fallen orange leaves.

Will Campuses Reopen for the 2020-21 Academic Year?

The coronavirus pandemic isn't done transforming the school year. It hit in time for spring break, moving spring term and spring commencement online. Now, residential colleges wonder whether they can safely reopen for fall. Most colleges are laying the groundwork for a host of contingency plans.

Lower enrollment would hit the American university system hard. More than any other country in the world, U.S. postsecondary education relies on student tuition.

Many colleges have also redrafted their academic calendars. Instead of beginning the school year in August or September, colleges may delay start dates until October or even the spring term. Schools that operate on 16-week semesters could shift to the quarter system or to even shorter courses.

The close-knit communities of residential colleges make them susceptible to outbreaks. To cut down on social contact, colleges will likely offer more blended courses, with in-person and online components. Another option is to move large courses entirely online.

While students wonder whether campuses will reopen soon, schools wonder whether students will show up. College administrators anticipate that the impact of coronavirus on students' finances and mental health may mean choosing local, less expensive schools or putting off college entirely.

Lower enrollment would hit the American university system hard. More than any other country in the world, U.S. postsecondary education relies on student tuition. Both colleges and students are eager for campuses to reopen, but there are substantial risks.

How Will COVID-19 Affect the Fall Application Cycle?

This year's admissions process has posed new challenges to students. As of the end of March, 1 in 6 high school seniors who expected to go to college were considering a different path. A recent BestColleges survey also showed that 44% of students affected by coronavirus disruptions were worried about their ability to enroll or re-enroll in college.

As of the end of March, 1 in 6 high school seniors who expected to go to college were considering a different path.

Meanwhile, college leaders worry that making announcements students do not like, such as an online-only fall term, could cause a drop in enrollment. To guard against such drops, prestigious colleges are now accepting a higher percentage of applicants. Some schools are even extending the admission deadline from May 1 to June 1 to give more leeway for undecided applicants.

Higher education has been relaxing a lot of old rules in response to the challenges facing students. Students unable to complete classes can take a pass/fail grade, but many worry how colleges will end up weighing those grades on their transcripts.

Additionally, the cancellation of SAT exams threw off many students' college prep plans. Now, more and more schools are going test-optional.

An empty field bordered by trees covered in fall foliage abuts an academic building on a college campus.

How to Prepare for Fall 2020 as a Student

In the fallout from coronavirus, students are rethinking college decisions. While financial hardship and other barriers will likely impact many education plans, students should be aware of the spectrum of options available to them.

"The colleges you are considering may provide a range of different options for the fall," said Melissa Venable, Ph.D., an online education advisor for BestColleges.

Many students are reconsidering online education. According to the COVID-19 Work and Education Survey conducted by Strada Education Network, over 50% of American adults prefer to invest in online education and training options over in-person and employer-provided options.

How Students Can Navigate Fall 2020

  • Take the time you need to decide. If the colleges you are considering have not already pushed back the decision deadline, ask for an extension.
  • Admissions departments can offer more guidance. Connect with the schools you're considering to stay up to date.
  • Gap years are an option. Many schools allow accepted students to defer admission for one academic year.
  • Consider online learning. Campus life is central to many students' college experiences, but some academics think that learning outcomes can be better online.

Some students and parents argue against paying full tuition for online classes, saying that if online is all their university can offer, they will opt for cheaper options. While students expecting the campus experience may be disappointed, they should not discount online education, says Venable.

Indeed, students whose primary experience with online education has been during the pandemic are not getting the full picture. "Schools have been offering high-quality online classes for a while now," Venable says.

Whatever fall term looks like, students should prepare themselves for change. According to Venable, "It's likely the campus experience may never be exactly what it was before the outbreak."