Thousands of colleges and universities across the country are racing to lure students to campus in the fall and find ways to keep them healthy once they're there.
It's a tall order and the stakes are incredibly high: significant declines in enrollment could not only spell financial doom for higher ed institutions but educational and career upheaval for students.
An April survey by the consulting firm Simpson Scarborough reveals that 4-year residential colleges and universities could see enrollment drop by as much as 20 percent this fall. Part of the reason: 1 in 10 high school seniors who say they no longer plan to attend a four-year residential school. They're making other plans like community college or online schools and they're blaming COVID-19 for their decision.
Returning students are also expressing doubt. One in four said they're unlikely to return to their current school or that it is "too soon to tell," according to the survey.
Simpson Scarborough chairman Elizabeth Johnson tells CBN News that affordability is a big reason. "Over half these kids say their parents have either been furloughed or laid off," she said. "They say their parents' financial situation has changed dramatically and higher education is expensive and so that's a factor."
Returning students may also be disenchanted after struggling with online classes this spring. Seven in 10 students responding to the survey said their online classes were worse than in-person classes.
Johnson says that when COVID-19 forced universities to quickly pivot to virtual education, many students felt like they had to teach themselves and they missed access to their professors. "They hate it, they absolutely hate it," she said.
Briana Rios, a student at William Jessup University, a Christian college in northern California, said she struggled to grasp the material and stay motivated when she had to switch to all online classes. "Luckily my professors were extremely understanding and they made the coursework extremely interactive," she said.
Shineika Fareus, an upperclassman at Gordon College, a Christian school in Massachusetts, says she's hoping to go back to campus in the fall. She struggled to find her rhythm while finishing classes at home this spring. "Doing school at home, it's not ideal," she said. "I have two younger brothers and a two-year-old sister at home - waking up in the mornings and getting ready it's just not the same."
College administrators are finding perhaps the challenge of a lifetime as they plan for the fall. Will COVID-19 be short-lived, continue into 2021 or work itself out in multiple waves? And, what's the best way to keep students healthy?
Some universities are opting for an early fall semester that gets students done by Thanksgiving when COVID-19 might flare up again.
Many schools are considering all their options for socially distant education.
Dr. John Jackson, the president of William Jessup University, says having a small student body and spacious campus will help.
"We are making every attempt to have fall classes resume. We might need to have half class capacity. We might have to alternate between Zoom and face-to-face but I think we're going to have that experience and I would encourage students to pursue schools that can do this," he said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate Health and Education Committee, says testing students will be key. It will allow universities to track and isolate students who have the virus or have been exposed to it. In a recent op-ed, he noted that campuses are beginning to look at mobile phone apps to track students and considering isolation dormitories.
Alexander applauds the efforts. "Widespread testing not only helps contain the disease; it also builds confidence that the campus is safe," he said.
Johnson encourages schools seeking to attract and retain students to improve their communication with them and try to reach out one-on-one. Reminding returning students about the things they love about campus is also a good idea she said.
She maintains that the country needs to view higher education as essential. "The people who are going to discover a cure - they'll go to our colleges," she said. "This is an industry that must survive and must thrive to educate people who are going to contribute to our economy."
Rios is hoping that her friends will come back and that she can enjoy the fun of being on campus with them, socializing, and doing activities together. "I'm hoping that it kind of goes back to normal, that students enroll, that we get our community back together," she said.