• David Schafer

An Ever-Changing Higher Education Landscape

From compelling colleges to adopt optional SAT/ACT policies to shifting classroom teaching online, the coronavirus pandemic is testing our country’s higher education system in unprecedented ways. The question remains, however, whether these changes are fleeting or destined to last.

One notable development we’ve witnessed over the past few months is that colleges and universities are increasingly making the SAT/ACT an optional part of their admissions process for the Class of 2025. As of June 20th, according to FairTest, more than 1,250 accredited four-year colleges and universities have embraced this policy, including Ivy League institutions Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth.

While most schools have not yet indicated whether they will reinstate mandatory standardized testing next year beginning in the fall of 2021, some have declared their intention to either extend this policy beyond 2021 or upend their testing approach altogether. Middlebury College, for example, recently announced that the school would adopt a “three-year test optional experiment.”

Colleges and universities are likewise grappling with questions around ways to balance online and in-person learning. While many schools are planning for in-person instruction this coming fall, others have already committed to moving classes fully online or incorporating a hybrid model of online/in-person teaching. In a recent survey conducted by College Reaction, 65% of surveyed incoming college students indicated a preference for in-person classes, even in the absence of a coronavirus vaccine or cure. From this data alone, it’s unsurprising that many colleges and universities are expecting enrollment declines this coming fall if classes are fully or partially remote. The Fitch Ratings Group went so far as to estimate that enrollment could be down anywhere between 5% and 20% for public and private colleges. The lower-end of this range assumes that “most residential campuses will reopen for the fall 2020,” while the more extreme scenario anticipates a “slower economic recovery driven by prolonged or recurring coronavirus-related disruptions.” Any enrollment decline will be detrimental, especially to private schools, since 82% of their revenue is tuition and student fees compared to only 38% for public institutions.

With the likely move to at least partial online instruction this coming fall, schools have been forced to think about how to price tuition and other fees. This endeavor requires a delicate balancing act between incorporating student concerns and mitigating budget shortfalls. To predict the cost structure that colleges might develop, we are well-served to look back on what occurred this past spring, when schools first made the move to online teaching. While most colleges offered students refunds on room and meal expenses, they did not offer tuition reimbursements, noting that students “would still be receiving credits toward their degrees." Going forward, while some schools might freeze tuition this coming fall to incentivize enrollment, it is unlikely families will see an actual reduction in tuition costs.

When students do return to campus, the on-campus, in-person nature of their education and extracurricular involvement will also look very different than it did before. For one, many schools are moving ahead with a revamped academic calendar, holding classes straight from the beginning of the semester until just before Thanksgiving, so that students don’t have to travel back to campus after the holiday to finish classes and take finals. Additionally, schools are amending housing and dining protocols. For instance, the University of Michigan announced that residence halls and dining facilities will be open, but that campus housing will “reserve some units to serve as quarantine housing as needed,” and that “density in dining halls will be reduced,” with “boxed meals” also being offered. In the coming weeks, we expect that additional colleges will release more detailed plans for the fall semester. It’s fair, though, for students and their families to expect the unexpected—as the COVID pandemic continues to affect virtually all facets of college life.

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