• David Schafer

The Meaning Behind a Word: What is a “Hybrid” Model of Higher Education?

As colleges and universities prepare for the upcoming academic year amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a few major types of schooling have been widely discussed and proposed - a fully in-person one, a fully virtual approach, or a “hybrid” model that combines remote and in-person learning. While the first two are relatively self-explanatory, the third one is laced in greater ambiguity, requiring further clarification. For instance, under this so-called hybrid model of higher education, what shape will on-campus living take? Which classes will be online, and which will be held in-person?


As of August, many colleges and universities that have committed to at least some measure of in-person learning are in the final stages of actualizing a hybrid model, including Howard University and Princeton University. According to a late July report from The Chronicle of Higher Education, 167 public, four-year and 231 private, four-year colleges are planning on operating a hybrid model in the fall. Before providing more context on this model, it’s important to acknowledge that no school’s hybrid approach will look exactly alike, and that much can still change between now and the start of the fall semester. This said, there are some general themes and common policies around mandatory COVID testing, on-campus living, and classroom instruction that we can discern by studying some of the plans that have already been released.


On the subject of COVID testing, a recently published study by Harvard and Yale Universities argues that schools with at least some in-person presence should aim to test students for COVID at least “every two days.” It remains to be seen, however, whether schools will have the necessary resources to conduct such frequent tests. In an updated fall semester plan that it released to students on August 3rd, the University of Michigan announced that, in partnership with Quest Diagnostics, it would conduct only pre-arrival testing for students. Conversely, Yale University students will be required to undergo “pre-arrival and at-arrival testing, as well as ongoing screening[s]” at least twice a week for students in campus housing.


Balancing life in a dorm with appropriate social distancing guidelines presents yet another challenge to colleges and universities operating with a hybrid model. Back in May, the CDC released a list of “Considerations for Institutions of Higher Education” in which the CDC described opening residence halls “at full capacity” as being a high-risk decision. In light of this warning, many schools with a hybrid model, including Howard University and Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), are “de-densifying” campus housing by moving to single bed occupancy.


Arguably the most pressing question about the hybrid model rests on the nature of classroom instruction, namely which courses will meet in-person, and which will be taught remotely. For some schools, including the University of Michigan, small classes will “generally” meet in-person, while larger lectures will be taught remotely. Other schools are basing this determination less on the nature of the class and more on the classification of the student, including Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, which announced that it would only be bringing first-year students to campus. Atlanta-based Emory University is similarly limiting on-campus classes to select international and first-year students, while sophomore, juniors, and seniors will be fully remote.


Amidst the present unpredictability in our society, one thing remains certain - the upcoming fall semester in higher education will look nothing like past college terms. As colleges and universities prepare to implement the much-discussed hybrid model of learning, we can only wait and see how these new methods of on-campus living and classroom instruction for students will turn out.


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