Higher education has been in a precarious place for some time, with cuts in funding, the slow consolidation of academic positions and tenure track positions and with relying on international students for most of their revenue. Now, COVID-19 has only exacerbated these vulnerabilities. Educational institutions, along with the higher education community, encompassing students and academics, are now facing increased hardship and uncertainty.
Due to the pandemic, most if not all colleges across the country were forced to shut down, move classes completely online, and send students home in March of 2020. Over the summer, those colleges struggled with how to approach the upcoming fall semester, attempting to balance the safety of students and staff with ensuring that their basic costs of operation would be covered.
Many universities changed course multiple times, from pushing back the move-in dates for on-campus housing, deciding to only have certain classes in person, or making the ultimate decision to move all classes completely online for the entirety of the semester, and notified their students about those changes. Other schools, however, decided to continue as if nothing had changed and planned to welcome students and staff back to their campuses with only some precautions in place.
However, within just a few weeks of re-opening, many colleges have already been overrun with outbreaks of COVID-19 cases. Schools such as the University of North Carolina opened up for students in the Fall, only to quickly shift to remote learning due to an alarming number of Covid outbreaks. Some colleges have isolated students who test positive, others have suspended and expelled students who attend parties, and many have shut down again, sent students back home, and moved completely online. Many researchers note that this was to be expected–it wasn’t a question of if, it was a question of when.
Universities and Colleges have struggled in choosing the best and safest learning formats for their students. When a plethora of schools close their doors on students, staff, and faculty only weeks after deciding to re-open campuses, it becomes crucial to ask if academic institutions are more interested in monopolizing and exploiting the lives of those aforementioned for monetary gain than they are maintaining their actual livelihoods? And, as schools struggle to maintain financial efficacy and minimize job cuts and layoffs, the question to be considered is, how can schools better prioritize safety while still employing staff, meeting baseline costs, and providing optimal education during a pandemic?
In order to understand how this uncertainty is affecting students, Honeysuckle spoke to Undergraduate and Graduate across the country to see what they had to share about their own school’s chosen methods of learning during the Fall semester.
Travis, a Biology major and rising senior and Kiyomi, a Physics major and rising junior, both attend University of Hawai‘i. Travis wrote that their school was planning on doing “hybrid learning with labs in-person,” with Kiyomi adding, “As far as I know it’s the professor’s choice. One of my classes was supposed to be in-person but just got changed to online.” Travis plans on doing online classes from home and attending lab classes on campus, continuing full time, while Kiyomi plans on doing all of her classes online. Travis wrote, “I feel uneasy about risking our lives [because the University is] forcing us to go to school,” noting that his lab classes typically range from 20 to 30 people and that that is far too many people to have safely in a room at once.
Kiyomi wrote, “I think the fact that they didn’t have an online option for all classes is concerning, especially considering the fact that some people are high risk and/or have family [members] that are high risk. I fully expect the plan to change sometime during the course of the semester, probably to all online like last semester. It doesn’t make sense to me, [we should] just do [all online] from the beginning of the semester. I think that would be much less of a hassle for the professors and for students who have to fly in from another state or another island and possibly find housing on Oahu in order to attend classes.”
Alana, an incoming undecided freshman at University of Virginia wrote that her school is also having “Hybrid learning with classes [that are] available to students both online and in-person,” and that students have the option to dorm on campus. She, however, plans to defer this semester. She wrote, “My family and I feel uncertain because the University is very far away and very expensive. The risk of contracting the Coronavirus while at school, or endangering others is very frightening. Also, the possibility that in-person classes and dorms will be shut down, with classes moving completely online is a big concern for the amount of money we would have to spend to send me there.”
Sophie, a junior at Diablo Valley College majoring in Political Science and Global Studies wrote to us saying, “My college is providing mainly online courses, with the exception of hybrid classes for those which need in-person laboratories and other sections, such as the sciences. My family and I feel quite comfortable with DVC’s plan for this coming semester, as they really are trying their best to keep their students safe and only require and provide in-person sections where necessary.” She plans on staying with a full-time schedule by taking classes completely online.
Elka is an English major attending Fordham in the accelerated Bachelors/Masters program. She wrote, “Hybrid learning with a mix of synchronous and asynchronous classes. 3 out of 4 of my classes will be entirely online; one of the classes is planning on meeting in person once a week and online once a week.” She continued, saying, “My family and I feel like the plan makes a lot of sense and [we] just hope that students will still take it upon themselves to be responsible and look after the wellbeing of the student body and surrounding Bronx community. I’m living in my apartment in the Bronx. I focus better when I’m not at home because now that I’m away for school, [being] back home feels like I’m on holiday. By living here, I can at least feel like there is a semblance of normalcy for my senior year, given that I’m still in NYC. My parents live in California, and I feel more comfortable being at least near school even if I’m working from my apartment.”
John*, an Art major at Colorado College wrote that his school has switched to Hybrid learning but that “it is up to the professors whether to be online or in person. They also must provide online options if students feel unsafe.” He relayed that, “Because my school is on a block schedule where we only take one class at a time, they are running a twelve-month school year giving students the option to drop in and out of blocks throughout the year depending on their comfort levels. Given the circumstances, I feel that my school has come up with the best plan that they could under the CURRENT circumstances. If things worsen, I’m not sure how they would handle another situation where students are forced to be sent home.” For his plan this semester, John said, “I’m returning to live in an off-campus house. A lot of my art classes are looking into [the possibility of] running courses outdoors or at 25%-50% capacity.”
Jill is a Psychology major, and Riley is a Creative Writing major, both students at The New School. They informed us that their school is only offering online classes this semester. The two undergraduate students shared their relief at knowing their school’s plan early on so that they could plan ahead and were especially satisfied because it seemed that the school was putting the health of students and staff first. Riley wrote, “The New School shared their plans for the fall semester early in the summer, for which I am grateful for because it allowed me time to make satisfactory plans and reduced general anxiety over the future of my education,” and Jill happily said that she felt “Great!!” about her university’s plan. Jill will be doing classes from her apartment in NYC, and Riley will be doing online classes from home, and reducing to part-time studies.
Keiko, an Architectural Engineering major at Cal Poly SLO informed us that all of her classes will be held online, but that about 13% of laboratory classes have in-person options. “My major requires a lot of hands-on learning, and after having an all-online format for a quarter [last spring], the department realized it was really hard to demand the same quality of education from an online platform for most majors at the school,” Keiko wrote to us. “Personally, I struggled a lot because most of my classes were synchronous while I was in a different time zone. I feel like my school’s plan for Fall is a sufficiently safe option the school can provide, but I don’t think it’s necessarily fair for all students.
My pupils spoke directly to the department of Architectural Engineering to address that some students are in situations where they can no longer afford to pay for rent due to job losses from the pandemic, health concerns, or both and will be restricted to a lower quality of education than those who can afford to live in the city and attend classes. The tuition costs have not changed while the quality of education and resources available to students (like computers, printers, drafting programs, machines shops, studios/workrooms) are no longer provided for us.” As for Keiko’s plan for this semester: “I am fortunate enough to be able to live in San Luis Obispo and attend a few classes in-person this fall while also taking online classes,” she confirmed.
Cathleen, a sophomore at Columbia wrote that her school is planning to do online classes, but that students are still able to dorm on-campus. But although she is still enrolled in online classes, she is taking a lighter load and trying to find off-campus housing. In regards to how she feels about her school’s current plan, Cathleen wrote, “[I’m feeling] stressed. We were in denial that Columbia would declare [that our classes would be] online so last minute.”
Hannah, a Theatre major and rising junior wrote, “Most classes in my program are fully remote, but the university is also offering hybrid classes,” but relayed that she feels uncertain about the fact that students will still be meeting in-person at times. She said, “We [my family and I] feel uncomfortable with the high quantities of students gathering. We [would] prefer more remote learning options [because of] some family members who have low immunity,” and added that she would only take online classes this semester.
Many students are deeply worried about their finances, while tuition costs rise or remain the same, in spite of significantly limited access to key, on-campus resources such as libraries, labs and studios. This is another blow to students who face significantly high debt associated with the pursuit of education and an increasingly unpredictable job market, which prevents them from attaining financial independence, a trend that has steeply inclined in the last couple of decades.
Amongst these varied responses from students, it is clear that schools are trying their best to ensure enrollment in order to keep operating while also trying to balance this with safety concerns. While bigger, private institutions may be able to absorb the financial losses resulting from Covid, other, smaller institutions are at great risk of capsizing, particularly in light of funding that has been redirected to Covid prevention measures. Many universities such as Boston University, University of Massachusetts and California State have been forced to announce “cuts to staff, benefits and pay.” Outside the United States, in places such as Australia, universities are “facing wipeout” due to their reliance on tuition from international students.
There is no denying that higher education, along with students and academics, are facing tough choices, uncertainty and grave financial concerns. While this article focuses on higher education, early childhood, primary and secondary education are facing even more chaos and issues, particularly with rising cases and remote learning that disrupts the education of students as well as places additional pressure on parents.
Education must be protected at all costs, and this must be done in a way that takes into account the needs of students and teachers. While higher education has been in a precarious place for some time now, with the onslaught of the pandemic, educational institutions are truly in uncharted waters.
We must adapt to these changes and face the fact that for some time, education will look different than what it has. While the change is a drastic one, it is not necessarily all doom and gloom. Many industries have faced disruptions, either due to technological innovation or major events such as the pandemic. Universities are already adapting to the changes and if viewed as an essential shift, we can remain hopeful that universities will continue to prevail, albeit in a radically different form to before. Indeed, some have argued that higher education was long due for “disruption.“
While we discuss the hardship caused by the pandemic in terms of higher education, we cannot escape the fact that that it is individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds who will bear the brunt of the suffering caused by these drastic changes and transitions. So, as we move forward and embrace this disruption, institutions must do their best to ensure that higher education uses this precarious foundation to revitalize itself and focus on eradicating barriers to accessing higher education as well as maintaining and perhaps even elevating the integrity of the academic field.