There is a lot of concern in homes all over the United States right now. Concern about the virus, of course, and the health and welfare of neighbors and families. But for 16 Million students already enrolled in college or those who are about to go (and their families), there is tremendous anxiety that they will not be allowed to return to campus or head to one for the first time. The same Class of 2020 high school seniors that have endured a senior spring of social distancing and cancelled graduations, may also be the first class to have to start their dream college semester from their parent’s couch. But, a few colleges, like Purdue University in Indiana, are saying that they will face challenges, but plan to re-open for on-campus instruction.
We’re keeping an eye on large states that have been lightly hit (thus far) by the pandemic and two obvious choices are Texas and Florida.
Whether for political reasons, economic reasons, or both, these states are likely to reopen early and that means that their colleges have a significantly higher chance to be up and running by mid-August.
The concern, ultimately, is the unknown associated with COVID-19 and the potential liability that colleges and universities might face if a return to campus caused more infection or continued infection. Think about it for a minute: the on-campus college experience is the exact opposite of social distancing. Sure, almost all colleges have a party element, some more famously that others, but it’s not just partying, it’s classes with smart professors, campus speakers, sporting events and club sports. Plainly said, it’s about new people and new experiences. Even non-residential colleges provide this. The “community” in community college is not just a reference to a smaller geographic reach, it’s a direct reference to the fact that even in a two-year college, people socialize and interact.
Travis County and Austin,Texas, home to UT-Austin, has had a relatively light number of cases compared to other urban centers in the US. Why? One of the primary reasons is that Austin went hardcore early, they cancelled the events that would have brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city (including me for the SXSW festival). They then shut all bars and restaurants the following week in advance of St. Patrick’s Day, and those proactive measures probably saved a lot of lives. As of this writing, they have only seen 1,400 cases and 39 deaths in a city of approximately 1,000,000 people. My county in Massachusetts has seen 3,300 confirmed cases and 337 deaths with a population of just 160,000.
The same cannot be said for Florida. Florida closed late and allowed its big event, Spring Break, to continue through the end of March. Studies have shown that COVID-19 spread around the country with students that returned home from break. But, the current impact in Leon County (home to Florida State) is just 212 cases and a handful of deaths. Alachua County (home to the University of Florida) has almost the same numbers.
What’s the next big event in late August? College. There are about 1.4 Million college students in Texas (50,000 undergraduates at UT-Austin with 10% of them logged as out of state or international students). Florida, meanwhile, is not far off with just under 1 Million. The University of Florida has about 50,000 and 20% from out of state or international. Florida State clocks in around 32,000 students and also about 20% from out state.
It’s a given that every college is going to have to change in some manner. I think the obvious examples will be seen in class schedules, treatment of higher-risk populations such as older staff and professors, how students watch or participate in sporting events, how students live in dorms and other housing and yes, how they party and socialize. But, if there is not a new surge in cases in big states like Texas and Florida, there will be significant efforts made to open the doors and attempt to get back to normal.
Patrick Kandianis has been innovating in the higher education space for over thirty-five years and has spent the last fifteen focused on student finance. He oversees the strategic direction and operations of Quatromoney on a day-to-day basis and welcomes the opportunity to help more families with Quatromoney’s unique approach to paying for college.