Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

6 Ways College Might Look Different In The Fall


What will happen on college campuses in the fall? It's a big question for families, students and the schools themselves. While a lot is still unknown, it's clear that life and learning will be different for the 20 million U.S. students in higher education. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been looking into how colleges might reopen.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: There is a wide-open spectrum of ideas for how the fall semester could happen, from a version of in-person to all online like it's been this spring. So far, schools have been hesitant to announce anything but business as usual, mostly because they're still trying to convince students they should attend.

ELLEN TREANOR: It's a hard call. There's a lot of pressure.

NADWORNY: Ellen Treanor is from Cal State Fullerton, one of the first schools to announce they were planning for a virtual fall. She says they're still looking into a bunch of scenarios. They even had professors measure their classrooms so they could start to figure out social distancing contingencies.

TREANOR: OK. If social distancing is six feet, where can my students stand? How do I stagger when they enter the classroom and when they leave?

NADWORNY: They haven't ruled all that out, she says, but faculty needed to prepare for an all-online scenario.

TREANOR: Nothing beats that on-campus experience, but we're being reasonable.

NADWORNY: If courses are taught virtually, it also opens the door to a hybrid approach, with some larger classes online and smaller ones in person. Other schools have floated the idea of simply delaying the fall start, pushing it back to October or November or even January of 2021. Another scenario is the block schedule, where students take just one class at a time for three or four weeks. Colorado College is a liberal arts school south of Denver. They've been doing this for 50 years.

ALAN TOWNSEND: You're not the only one to call, right? I mean, we've gotten a number of calls for - from other institutions that are just looking at next year and trying to figure out how do we plan through this and wanting to pick our brains a little bit about how does this work just because of the ways in which it may help.

NADWORNY: That's Alan Townsend, the provost at Colorado College. He says the model allows students to dive deep into a subject, and it's especially attractive right now because it allows flexibility to change more frequently since there's multiple start and stop points. One block could start online, and then just three weeks later, they could be in person. Schools could also offer both options to keep fewer people on campus.

TOWNSEND: Different students can make different choices. That's really hard to do with a semester-based system, but the blocks allow us to do that a little bit more flexibly.

NADWORNY: Townsend says the model is allowing the college to think creatively about next year. Of course, this doesn't factor in where students are going to be living during all of this.

JOSHUA KIM: The residence aspect is the big challenge for the fall.

NADWORNY: That's Joshua Kim, a professor at Dartmouth. He and Eddie Maloney, a professor at Georgetown, wrote a book about the future of higher ed, and now they're studying how colleges are planning to reconfigure the fall.

KIM: Schools are thinking about how can they spread their students out, maybe put students in places where they normally wouldn't go, like offices that aren't going to be used or maybe hotel rooms.

NADWORNY: Because having packed dorms with doubles and triples just seems really unlikely now. There's also the idea of bringing only some students back to campus. Perhaps in the fall it's just freshman since they're new to the college experience. Kim predicts we'll see a combination of many of these ideas in the fall. He says the most important thing in all of these decisions is for colleges to be thinking about their vulnerable students, those for whom college isn't just about the degree; it's also a safe and stable place to call home.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 4, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
This post has been updated to show that research from Kim Weeden and Benjamin Cornwell found that eliminating large classes did lessen connections between students, but left the small world network of a campus intact.
Elissa Nadworny covers higher education and college access for NPR. She's led the NPR Ed team's multiplatform storytelling – incorporating radio, print, comics, photojournalism, and video into the coverage of education. In 2017, that work won an Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation. As an education reporter for NPR, she's covered many education topics, including new education research, chronic absenteeism, and some fun deep-dives into the most popular high school plays and musicals and the history behind a classroom skeleton.