Many colleges will stay online this fall despite governmental pressure to reopen. While health and safety remain top priorities, vulnerable students may suffer.

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The Pros and Cons of Reopening Campuses This Fall


  • Colleges hoped for an in-person fall, but COVID-19 has forced classes to remain online.
  • Reopening schools allows colleges to continue supporting vulnerable students.
  • However, it could also lead to widespread coronavirus transmission spikes.

This spring, COVID-19 pushed higher education online. Now, with the fall term rapidly approaching, educators and officials continue to debate whether education should remain online. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) believes classrooms should be up and running, but many colleges are charting different paths.

Both Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration insist that schools reopen for the sake of learning and social health; however, ED says it cannot issue overarching school reopening plans and has withheld health safety guidelines for doing so.

Reopening schools is critical to keeping students of all levels on track, according to professional organizations like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). Nevertheless, many school leaders oppose the government's push to reopen, claiming the move puts students, faculty, and families at risk.

In May, about two-thirds of colleges surveyed by The Chronicle of Higher Education planned to hold in-person classes this fall — but that figure has since declined. Several colleges in areas witnessing a rising number of coronavirus cases have reversed plans for in-person and hybrid fall terms, announcing that all classes will instead be taught entirely online.

Currently, less than half of colleges plan to reopen for in-person fall instruction.

Pros of Reopening College Campuses

  • Research shows that the best learning occurs with students physically present in the classroom.
  • Basic health safety guidelines can dramatically reduce the threat of transmission.
  • COVID-19 presents a low risk to young people, who make up the majority of college students.
  • Without online access and learning support, low-income students may fall behind.
  • Campuses can begin the process of building herd immunity.

Cons of Reopening College Campuses

  • Online education is constantly improving and will be much better in the fall than it was this spring.
  • Students are unlikely to obey behavior pledges for social distancing.
  • Nontraditional students, older faculty and staff, immunocompromised individuals, and certain racial groups are at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.
  • Another stay at-home order would force students to pay to return home.
  • A viral resurgence could mean a disruptive and costly transition back online.

Student Decisions Impact Colleges' Futures

The COVID-19 pandemic hit right during admissions season, interrupting both college entrance exams and application deadlines, and forcing many students and families to rethink their college plans. A recent survey found that 35% of Americans have changed or canceled their educational plans as a result of the coronavirus.

School closures have also put an end to the in-person support that helps many students get to college. Many universities braced for fewer students this fall after taking into account student surveys, low spring enrollment rates, and a drop in FAFSA renewals.

“In a pandemic, going to a frat party is a health decision. So is attending class, teaching a class, eating in a cafeteria, or sharing an off-campus apartment with a roommate.”

Summer melt still poses a threat to fall enrollment, but early figures from some colleges look promising, suggesting that students want to return to campus. While safer options exist online, many students prioritize campus life.

Socializing is a major part of the college experience, but on- and off-campus socializing could have far-reaching implications. Many colleges plan to have students sign social contracts in which they pledge to social distance, avoid travel, and self-isolate in the event they test positive for the virus.

Low-Income Students Rely On Campus Support

Many low-income college students lack the at-home resources required for remote learning. Some colleges managed to hand out laptops before temporarily closing, but students must still find broadband and a place to study during the national shutdown.

“Our nation’s response to COVID-19 has laid bare inequities. … This pandemic is especially hard on families who rely on school lunches, have children with disabilities, or lack access to internet or healthcare.”

With campuses closed, underprivileged students face a greater likelihood of falling behind. Low-income and first-generation college students often rely on their campus for in-person learning support as well as housing and food security. Put simply, campus immersion helps prevent vulnerable students from falling through the cracks.

Missing out on the traditional college experience could hamper student success. "I worry that the coronavirus is going to erase access to opportunity for low-income students and students of color," first-generation college student Pamela Melgar wrote in The Hechinger Report.

A college student wearing a jean jacket and face mask leans against a wall covered in graffiti.

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Minority Students Face Higher COVID-19 Risk

Underprivileged college students often depend on campus resources to succeed, but many also belong to racial groups that are at a higher risk for hospitalization due to COVID-19.

Black and brown communities — who tend to live in more densely populated neighborhoods and multi-generational households — have so far been hit hardest by the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that hospitalization rates for COVID-19 are highest among non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native people and non-Hispanic Black people.

For low-income students of color, both avoiding and returning to campus carry risk. Professional education groups claim that bringing underprivileged students back to campus is vital to ensuring they make it to graduation. At the same time, welcoming students back could mean spreading the coronavirus among high-risk communities.

Colleges Aim to Offer Quality Online Education

While nearly 40% of U.S. colleges hold on to the promise of face-to-face instruction this fall, many online education leaders report that their institution plans to continue investing in and developing remote programs that were created this spring.

In a survey of chief online officers (COOs) at an array of two- and four-year colleges, 78% said that the pivot to remote instruction at their institution was completely or largely successful in keeping students academically on track.

Before COVID-19, 50% of instructors, 51% of undergraduate students, and 27% of graduate students at U.S. colleges had never experienced an online course.

But this doesn't mean the move was necessarily easy: 44% of COOs considered the migration online "somewhat difficult," and another 20% found it "very challenging." Part of the challenge lay in acquainting students and instructors with online education.

Before COVID-19, 50% of instructors, 51% of undergraduate students, and 27% of graduate students at U.S. colleges had never experienced an online course.

For now, many colleges are trying to remain optimistic about their in-person fall plans while also investing heavily in quality online programs.