Personal Finance

Despite Covid cases rising, more colleges plan to reopen in the spring

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Key Points
  • Even as Covid-19 infections reach record levels, many colleges and universities are determined to invite students back for the spring semester.
  • The pandemic has had a devastating affect on higher education.
  • Some schools have already proved it is possible to safely reopen.
Incoming freshmen ask questions at an informational tent while arriving on campus at University of Colorado Boulder on August 18, 2020 in Boulder, Colorado.
Mark Makela | Getty Images

Even as cases of coronavirus surge nationwide, a growing number of colleges are bringing students back for the spring semester.

Georgetown University, Morehouse College, Smith College, the University of Florida and Princeton University, are among the schools that are inviting undergraduates to live on campus come January after being largely virtual in the fall.

"We know more today than we did over the summer about what actions we can take individually and collectively to keep our community as secure as possible," Princeton's President Christopher Eisgruber said in a statement.

"If we test the campus population regularly, and if everyone on campus rigorously adheres to public health guidance about masking, social distancing and other practices, we can welcome a far greater number of students back."

However, at Princeton, instruction will remain largely online even for undergraduates who live on campus and parties and most other social gatherings are prohibited — including participation in the university's off-campus eating clubs.

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Some schools have had success throughout the pandemic's second wave with a similar approach, including strict social distancing guidelines and frequent testing.

And yet, still others have tried and failed, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Notre Dame, where fraternities, sororities and off-campus parties helped drive a sudden spike in cases that caused those schools to revert to remote learning.

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For some schools, reopening is a financial necessity.

As long as schools continue to operate remotely, a significant number of would-be college students are opting out entirely, which has put an economic stranglehold on higher education.  

From the start, undergraduates voiced extreme dissatisfaction with remote learning, particularly at the same high cost they were previously paying for an in-person education. (Studies also show the students who can learn in person are at an advantage.)

"Students are waiting to see if their schools open up before determining whether to go back or not," said Allen Koh, CEO of Cardinal Education, a Palo Alto, California-based tutoring, test-prep and college admissions firm. "They need to find value."

Roughly 66% of higher education leaders said decreased revenue from tuition and student housing are the biggest challenges they now face, according to a recent poll from consulting firm NEPC's endowments and foundations practice.

Overall, undergraduate enrollment fell 4% this year, according to data from National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, with incoming freshmen accounting for the biggest drop, sinking 13% from last fall.

Nearly 75% of those polled by NEPC said occupancy in school-owned housing — another a critical source of revenue — also declined this year, and about one-quarter said it decreased more than 50%.

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Unless we get students back on campus, colleges will continue to hemorrhage money, according to Koh.

"There were many universities on the ropes prior to Covid," he said. "By the end of this school year there could be dozens of bankruptcies."

Already, universities have furloughed thousands of employees and announced revenue losses in the hundreds of millions. Some have even cut academic programs that were once central to a liberal arts education in order to stay afloat. 

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