For local students just about to begin college or preparing to return to university, the pandemic summer of 2020 presents unique and daunting choices. CDC guidelines say the lowest-risk option at this point would be complete remote learning in the fall, yet only 4 percent of U.S. colleges have chosen that course, according to the College Crisis Initiative.
The push to open campuses this fall is all about money: universities’ reliance on tuition and room and board fees to stay afloat. Without in-person classes, many institutions risk losing students who decide that remote learning isn’t worth the price.
One researcher, Scott Galloway, a marketing professor at New York University, has gone so far as to predict that a large number of U.S. colleges will have to close, including at least five in Massachusetts: Clark University, Mount Holyoke College, Simmons University, UMass Dartmouth, and Brandeis University.
Most universities have not offered to reduce tuition for remote-only students. Victoria Valentino of Brewster, a rising sophomore at UMass Amherst, has decided to take the year off. She will take classes instead at Cape Cod Community College (4Cs) in Barnstable.
“One of the biggest deciding factors was cost,” Valentino said. “I just couldn’t justify paying for online classes for the same price as in-person classes. The campus experience won’t be the same by any means. A lot of my friends are saying, ‘We are paying for the experience, not just online classes,’ but I don’t think they fully realize how different the experience is going to be.”
Lillian Manganaro, a 2020 Nauset High School graduate who will attend the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that if classes were completely online would have been more hesitant to pay out-of-state tuition. “I would’ve either semi-enrolled or deferred and taken some 4Cs classes or UMass Amherst classes,” she said.
As the main UMass campus plans on having at least half of its students back on campus, residents of the town of Amherst have organized a petition against the return of students. Exposure risks also went into Valentino’s decision not to return to campus in the fall. “I was really thinking of the safety of the town of Amherst,” she said. “It just didn’t seem fair or safe for them to have such an influx of students, and I didn’t want to be a part of that influx if I didn’t have to be.”
UMass Amherst also made headlines when the union representing resident assistants and peer mentors at the university wrote a letter to the administration demanding new contract negotiations. One issue was the lack adequate personal protective equipment provided to student workers.
While many students may value an in-person education more, a Brookings Institution report shows that university costs do not go down with remote instruction, especially given the demand for increased tutoring and mental health services that online learning creates. Some students, despite the costs and risks involved, are deciding that a hybrid model of learning is worth going to campus in the fall for.
For Matt West of Orleans, a rising senior at Missouri’s Webster University majoring in education, the choice to return to school will enable him to graduate on time. “If [the school] just said, ‘We are not going to be opening the campus this year,’ I’d be really behind,” he said. “So — to finish out my plan — that is why I am sticking with them.”
To get certification, complete his bachelor’s degree, and be employable next year as a teacher, West would have to fulfill hands-on teaching requirements and pass state tests. He said a silver lining in returning to campus this fall will be in those experiences. “If the world is going to be like this now,” he said, “the up-and-coming teachers need to know how to use the latest and greatest software.”
Kaden Rogers of Truro, who just graduated from the Sturgis Charter School, plans to study music at the University of New Hampshire. He expressed a similar eagerness to begin work on his degree.
“I’ve entertained the idea of a gap year before, and I was thinking about it this year,” said Rogers, “but there’s not really anything to do with the world being shut down right now. So, my best bet is to hope for college to be open for me so that I can pursue studies and I can get out in four years and have a degree.”
All of the students spoke of being aware of the unusual circumstances they face, and all are planning accordingly. “I’m just trying to keep my expectations really low,” said Lillian Manganaro. “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. That’s what I’m doing.”