May 2020

Coronavirus campus unrest

By Michael Jonas

APRIL, TRADITIONALLY A time of excitement and possibility in higher education, is instead proving to be the cruelest month for US colleges and universities.

High school seniors normally would be weighing their options after receiving college admission decisions, while campuses buzz with visits from excited would-be students. Instead, prospective freshmen are wondering whether their first year in college would begin on a laptop in their childhood bedroom, while schools are scrambling to develop contingency plans for an uncertain future filled with economic peril and, for some, threats to their very survival.

As the coronavirus pandemic lays waste to broad swaths of the economy, higher education is poised to take a particularly hard hit, with colleges and universities that were already feeling the strain of shaky finances now bracing for what some think could be a significant shakeout.

For Massachusetts, a higher education mecca with 114 colleges and universities and more than 425,000 students, the stakes are especially high.

Campuses that suddenly emptied and moved spring semester classes online are now trying to figure out whether they’ll be able to welcome students in person when September arrives or be starting the new academic year with Zoom classes and shuttered buildings.

Michael Horn, a higher education expert based in Boston, said colleges’ success at rolling out virtual classes has been uneven, and not particularly well received. “There’s certainly a lot of students and professors looking at this experience and saying, if this is what online learning is, I don’t want to keep doing it,” he said. Horn said it’s hard to imagine colleges being able to charge full tuition rates for an all-online fall semester. “For those who pay for a residential school, there’s a lot more that goes into it,” he said of all the other aspects of a college experience.


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