What Happens If Campuses Can’t Reopen in the Fall?

Apr 10, 2020

Will campuses be able to reopen in the fall, and if not, what does that mean for higher education?

That question feels increasingly pressing as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. It has been a little over a month since the University of Washington became the first college in the U.S. to move all teaching online to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. At the time, the plan was to reopen a few weeks later for the start of the next academic quarter. But that time has come and gone, and the campus is still shut down, as are most colleges around the country, with no end date in sight.

That reality was the starting point for this week’s episode of our EdSurge Live video discussion series on how colleges should respond to the coronavirus.

This week our guest was Bryan Alexander, an edtech futurist and consultant, and we asked him to look ahead at what might happen this fall.

Watch the complete discussion below:

Or listen to the full discussion on our EdSurge Live podcast feed:

EdSurge: What are your thoughts on what happens to colleges if campuses can’t reopen in the fall?

Bryan Alexander: It's possible that we're going to be under a straight lockdown for the next year. .. Or it's quite possible we will have waves of pandemic. So it may be that by the end of May or early June, we'll get the ‘all clear’ [and we go back]. And then come October, maybe winter, we get another outbreak—either because the virus has mutated or because it has shifted through another population or for some reason that we don't fully understand—and then we have to go back under quarantine again.

As far as how will higher education respond, you can think about the economics. Every way you think about the economics is bad. We [could] have at least one quarter of recession, if not three or four, in which case state governments are going to have less money because their revenue will be hit and their costs will go up, which means they'll spend less on public universities.

It means that private universities, the ones that depend on endowments, their endowments are being smacked upside the head very badly right now. It means that families will probably have less money to spend on education. So it may be that looking at the next academic year, we'll have at least a clamp down on budgets, if not a serious, serious crisis.

A second detail I think about is how students as well as faculty and staff will feel about the physical environment of the campus. Say we have an all clear. Will [people] ever want to come back? We may have students who are terrified… Campuses may have to compete to show how clean they are, just how many cleansings they went through and their procedures.

Does that mean that college goes back to being something only affordable to the elites, as it has been in the past?

In a sense we've been teetering on the edge of that. On every campus I go to, I've heard [some] faculty say ‘there are students here who shouldn't be here,’ and, ‘we admit too many students.’ Then there's the general cultural sense that maybe college shouldn't be for everyone.

I think we risk a long term effect of having that kind of 1920s model. You know, where if you're from the elite, you go to college or university, and if you're not, you're not [going to]. And that's a risk downstream that we have to really be careful of.

[Audience comment]: I go to UCLA and, I’ve found that taking online courses is overall a better learning experience than attending in-person lectures. All the lectures are prerecorded [because I can go back and review what happens].


This is a very brief recap of the conversation. To hear the rest, listen to the full audio or watch the video.


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