Mackenzie Allen says she now feels “a bit shakier” on some of the subjects that will underpin the rest of her college coursework after the junior civil engineering major at Marquette University saw her spring semester upended by COVID-19.
There’s never an opportune time to have your college career disrupted, but, for Allen, a semester full of courses focused on the fundamentals of her field, certainly wasn’t it.
Allen got word in March while on a spring break trip in Cuba that she would need to pack up her dorm room when she returned and move back in with her parents in Minnesota to finish the last few weeks of class. As was the case for college students across the country, streaming classes from childhood bedrooms and family kitchen tables was a less than ideal substitute for campus libraries and lecture halls.
“There were seven of us living at my home,” Allen said. “It was so nice to get time with family, but it was never quiet. There was always stuff going on.”
In August, she returned to Milwaukee to settle into her on-campus student apartment before the start of a semester that, despite the fastidiousness of reopening protocols and contingency planning, many see as fragile in light of the ongoing pandemic. The possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak looms, threatening to dismantle — or at least significantly disrupt — college leaders’ best laid plans.
Within a week of the semester’s start, a surge in COVID-19 cases on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus prompted chancellor Rebecca Blank to shift all classes online for at least two weeks and to require students living in two residence halls to quarantine in place.“I share the disappointment and frustration of students and employees who had hoped we might enjoy these first few weeks of the academic year together,” Blank said in a letter to the university community. “Before we started this semester, we knew that no plan would be risk-free in the current environment.“
At press time, several colleges around the country have already reversed course after initially planning to hold in-person classes, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which reported a 31% positivity rate among students tested for the coronavirus during the second week of classes before reverting back to virtual classes.
Nathan Karl, a junior nursing major at Marquette who shares an apartment with five other students, has a bet going with his roommates. He thinks it will be under a month before Marquette goes to online-only classes. One roommate says it will be under two weeks.
“Only one roommate, and he knows he’s going against Vegas, but he’s betting above one month,” Karl said. “You see what’s happening with UNC and Notre Dame. I want to say we’re going to be better but it’s just hard when you get people from across the country and mix them together.”[caption id="attachment_511995" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Nathan Karl, a junior studying nursing at Marquette, is concerned about what will happen with his off-campus clinicals if an outbreak causes the university to revert back to all-virtual instruction. “…if I can’t do clinicals, I can’t move onto my classes next semester and we can’t afford to do a fifth year,” he said.[/caption]
For higher education institutions, forgoing in-person instruction and potentially shutting down residence halls this semester would exacerbate deep financial challenges prompted by COVID-19, including lost revenue from canceled events, the absence of fall athletics and reduced on-campus student housing capacities.
At Marquette, it cost the university $11 million to refund a half-semester’s room and board when it converted to remote learning after spring break. Combined with a smaller than expected freshmen class and increased expenses, the university reported a $15 million budget shortfall for fiscal 2020, and projected financial risks of about $20 million to $25 million in fiscal 2021.
Large public universities face major financial challenges, as well. In mid-August, Blank estimated the UW System’s flagship school is facing at least a $150 million shortfall, citing reductions in housing, dining, parking, conference and athletics revenues, along with the expense of COVID-19 testing and other health protocols.
“We’re in a real financial crisis,” she said, adding it’s untenable for the state to continue to make cuts to the UW System in the next budget cycle.
“That will create a long-term financial crisis that we’ll be in for a number of years,” she said.
Prior to COVID-19, colleges were already competing for a dwindling number of students and have braced themselves for what projections show will be a significant drop in the country’s college-going population after 2025 due to birth trends.
For at least one Wisconsin college, the coronavirus made it unsustainable to continue operations altogether. Holy Family College, a Manitowoc private school formerly known as Silver Lake College, shut its doors permanently on Aug. 29, citing increased operating costs, changing student demographics and fundraising challenges, all of which were exacerbated by the health crisis.
“In the final analysis, the COVID-19 ramifications sealed the concerns about the college’s long-term future,” said the school’s community director Sister Natalie Binversie in a letter to the Holy Family College community in May.
Students face their own set of uncertainties. For Karl, a possible shutdown of face-to-face classes or area health care facilities, prompts a lot of questions: What about his off-campus clinical courses? Would those be canceled too? What if he can’t complete the required number of hours for his major? Would he need to do a fifth year of college? How would he afford it?
“I can do my lectures online, but if I don’t get a certain number of (clinical) hours, I can’t graduate,” he said. “So that was super stressful. I didn’t pay tuition until last week (the week before classes started) because if I can’t do clinicals, I can’t move onto my classes next semester and we can’t afford to do a fifth year. … My whole schedule got 180-ed.”[caption id="attachment_511997" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Furniture in The Commons residence hall at Marquette University is spaced out for social distancing.
If making the call to close campuses in the spring amid an escalating pandemic was difficult, determining how they would reopen has been an even greater challenge, several of the region’s higher education leaders said.
A national study released in August found 40% of incoming freshmen who aspired to attend a four-year residential college said they are likely to not attend any school this fall. Among returning students, 28% said they aren’t going back to their campus or haven’t decided yet, according to the study from higher education research firm SimpsonScarborough.
As coronavirus cases swelled over the summer, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design students’ comfortability with attending in-person classes dropped off. About 95% of students said they intended to be on campus when surveyed early in the summer.
“That has moved over the past month or so to about 45% of students now intending to study online,” said Jeff Morin, president of MIAD. “That’s a pretty dramatic shift.”
Morin says he understands that shift given the summer surge in COVID-19 cases, but the logistics of getting supplies into the hands of nearly half the student body to equip them for remote learning — compared to 5% — is a challenge.
Wisconsin colleges have largely adopted variations of an in-person/online hybrid class model, including smaller and more spread out classes to allow for social distancing. UW-Madison will hold classes solely online following the Thanksgiving holiday until the end of the semester; UW-Milwaukee has said it is considering a similar schedule.
Few have disclosed what threshold of positive COVID-19 tests would prompt campus shutdowns. That ambiguity concerns some faculty and instructors.
During the first week of class, a group of Marquette graduate students and non-tenured faculty staged a “die-in” on campus in protest of the university’s reopening plan. The demonstration was organized by the Marquette Academic Workers Union, a group that has been organizing for the past few years but is not recognized by the university.
“It’s clear that administration has not accounted for how quickly this virus spreads in spaces like enclosed air-conditioned buildings, like Marquette’s campus,” said Thomas Hansberger, a Marquette teaching assistant and an organizer of the protests.
Campus staff, meanwhile, spent the summer readying facilities for students’ return. Residence halls were “de-densified” to reduce student occupancy per room. Isolation rooms were added in the dorms. The university waived its on-campus residence requirement for some students to create more space. Classrooms were reconfigured, seats blocked off and equipment installed to accommodate online classes.
A few days into the first week of class, Lora Strigens, vice president for planning and facilities management at Marquette, said students appeared to be honoring the school’s safety protocols.
“These are young adults; we’re doing everything we can to encourage them to make good choices,” she said. “But in our academic environments and res hall environments, those walking on campus today, I’ve been truly impressed even on a 90-degree day, the number of our community members and students in particular who are wearing their masks, minding their physical distance.”[caption id="attachment_511998" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Across Marquette’s campus, classrooms have been reconfigured and equipment was installed to accommodate remote learning. Credit: Marquette University[/caption]
Professors acknowledge the pedagogical pitfalls of converting classes that typically rely on the give-and-take of an in-person discussion into video calls and online forums. Not having the feedback of students’ live facial expressions and mannerisms, it’s hard to know how material is landing, said Kevin Guilfoy, a philosophy professor at Carroll University in Waukesha.
Students were fairly forgiving about the scramble to online learning in the spring, but they probably didn’t learn as much as they otherwise would have, he said.
“There’s no way to replace sitting there with a smaller group of people actually engaged in the moment,” he said. “The delays involved in doing those sorts of things online, where you ask your question and then forget about it and a day later the answer comes, it’s not as immediate and you don’t develop the kinds of depth of responding and analysis that you get in person.”
While instructors in the spring had to improvise just to get students through the semester, summer has allowed more time for them to rethink their courses and align them with an online or hybrid format. Lilly Goren, a political science professor at Carroll, said she has higher expectations of how students engage in class this semester.
“A lot of students were obviously upset about the pandemic and concerned about their own health and their family’s health. There was a lot of anxiety all around,” Goren said of the spring semester. “But my approach in the fall is different. This is what we’re doing for the semester, it’s going to be an online forum, so my expectations are more normalized.”
Students, for example, are expected to have their cameras turned on during live lectures, she said.
Guilfoy said he hopes in-person classes last long enough this semester for him to at least get to know his students’ names and faces, not just the ID numbers that pop up on his screen when they log into online class.[caption id="attachment_511999" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Common areas of Engineering Hall on Marquette’s campus were reconfigured to allow for social distancing. Credit: Marquette University[/caption]
For Milwaukee Area Technical College, 60% of classes include a virtual option, 20% are fully in person. The remainder includes a mix of both, or are off-campus apprenticeships or clinicals. That could change with a surge in the virus. MATC has contingency plans in place, including condensing classes into eight weeks, if the college needs to wrap up the semester early.
Technical college coursework — ranging from surgical technology to auto mechanics to carpentry — is by nature more hands-on than a four-year university. MATC has added layers of precaution for those types of classes, including updating air filtration systems, enforcing social distancing and frequent sanitization of those spaces, said president Vicki Martin.
There’s an economic imperative for those classes to continue, she said.
“Bringing those students back is really important,” she said. “It’s important for the economy. It’s important for employers that they have the workforce that they definitely need right now to have business continuity for their own companies.”
But for students with graduation in view, the future is fraught with uncertainty.
“The next couple of years for our age bracket is going to be very different,” Allen said. “There’s not a job market right now. That’s super hard. For a lot of students in college, they have this plan (to work for) this company, but those are not certain at all.”
The outlook for Allen landing a job in transportation engineering may be better than for other fields, but it’s likely to look different than what she expected. It could be a remote position, making it more difficult to connect with colleagues and develop professionally, she said.
For Carthage College, a private college in Kenosha that last year began mandating all students participate in a career development program aimed at helping them connect their liberal arts education to the workforce, COVID-19 has disrupted internship opportunities for students as area employers pull back on hiring.
“The job market has changed quite a bit, so we’re in touch with companies that did have plans to hire people and now don’t,” said John Swallow, president of Carthage.
It’s prompted larger questions for Swallow about college tuition and student loans as a primary financing method. As 2008 and 2020 have proven, predicting what the economy will look like when you’re 18 and trying to choose a college major that will result in job prospects four years later doesn’t work in times of tectonic economic disruption.
“Taking out a loan makes sense if you graduate and the economy continues to be strong and stable,” Swallow said.
Swallow said income share agreements — a contract in which a student agrees to pay a percentage of their salary back to their university after graduation to fund their education — or other alternative college funding arrangements could be a better option.
“I don’t know what the plan would be, but it does strike me that what we have today introduces a lot of risk and uncertainty for families, particularly in economic disruption,” he said.[caption id="attachment_511996" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Markings on the floor of The Commons residence hall at Marquette University reinforce social distancing.[/caption]
MATC has made a concerted effort in recent years to address college affordability for first-generation and low-income students.
It’s now in the fifth year of offering its Promise program, which provides free tuition to qualifying low-income high school graduates from the college’s district. It expanded the free tuition program in 2018 to include returning students who pursue an associate degree tied to in-demand careers. This fall, it began offering returning students assistance with repaying past-due balances owed for their college expenses in an effort to address one barrier preventing students from completing their degrees.
“Many students have told us it’s a decision between paying their rent or their car payment or paying for food or buying something for their children,” Martin said. “They said they had to make those decisions and it couldn’t be for school.”
The shift to remote learning has revealed even more cracks in the system. A significant percentage of MATC’s students either didn’t have up-to-date technology or access to a hotspot to continue their studies in the spring. The college has since distributed thousands of Chromebooks for students in need, lent out mobile hotspots and broadened its WiFi access around its building.
“When you go within a couple weeks to online (classes), you get to see (the digital divide) front and center,” Martin said.
Widespread national protests over social injustice and systemic racism, meanwhile, have forced higher education institutions in recent months to confront their own role in addressing racial inequality.
“The issue of the pandemic and the issue of racial injustice crashed over the summer together and it was clear that, even in a pandemic, there is inequality,” Morin said.
Last year, MIAD hired its first full-time director of diversity and inclusion. This summer, it unveiled a three-year plan aimed at addressing “systemic flaws in the college’s operations” and the “unequal” experience of students of color on its campus.
Over the summer, Carthage unveiled an anti-racism action plan that includes infusing U.S. racial history into curriculum as a graduation requirement for all students and closing the college’s racial graduation rate gap.
“COVID is not a time to pause that work; it’s a time to do, perhaps, more of it,” Swallow said.
Given the financial challenges families face due to the pandemic, Morin said higher education institutions will increasingly be pressed to justify the cost and value of tuition. Colleges will be expected to be more transparent about how they are funded and where the money is going, he said.
“Those conversations will not lessen when we get to the other side of the pandemic; those conversations are going to get louder,” he said.
Colleges will also rely more heavily on new funding streams not tied to tuition, he said.
Blank acknowledged smaller liberal arts colleges are among the most hard-pressed during the pandemic. With limited tuition dollars, colleges’ ability to weather the next few years will depend on their alumni giving and borrowing ability, she said.
Higher education leaders are optimistic that the large-scale shift to hybrid instruction will lead to innovation in the industry.
“One of my hopes is when we come out on the other side of this we’ll actually be teaching better and more effectively by using and integrating technology more effectively into our in-person learning,” Blank said.
For years, industry leaders have forecasted online education would be the future of higher education. The past six months, Guilfoy said, have revealed the problem with that prediction.
“Everyone knows that that’s a catastrophe now,” he said. “Pretty much everyone has admitted that fully online anything is not as good as face-to-face.”
But, over the next few years, as educators are forced to rethink their courses, they are likely to find the right balance of integrating technology and in-person instruction, he said.
“I guess it’s the capitalist optimist in me. A million people are going to try a million things. Six of them will work, and then we’ll all do that,” Guilfoy said. “It’s hard to come out of this level of chaos without somebody figuring out a bunch of interesting things that will work and change the way we do things.”