Disclaimer: The news around college reopening plans is changing by the hour. This article was published on Wednesday, August 19, 2020, with the hope of sharing what college will look like this fall for our students. For the most current information and updates of college plans, please visit The Chronicle.
Online or in person? Hybrid or HyFlex? Staggered start times or shortened semesters? It’s hard to keep up with the nuances of the various reopening plans and instructional models announced so far by colleges and universities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s even more difficult, though, is trying to keep track of the current plan for each school, as these are shifting by the day. And for first-generation college-going students and their families, these changes add another complex layer to what was already a difficult system to navigate—enrolling in and starting college.
Just last week, DePaul University here in Chicago reversed their plan from May, moving from as many in-person classes as possible to having almost all fall courses now take place online. DePaul is a popular landing place for Chicago Scholars, with more than 60 upperclassmen already enrolled and close to 30 incoming freshmen joining them from our College Class of 2024. The email sent to students on Wednesday shared that those who are currently signed up for on-campus classes will find out soon whether the courses will be virtual. But it’s not just DePaul. Additional schools that have flipped to online instruction within the last few days include The University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Macalester College, and Stanford University. We have Scholars both returning to and starting at all of these schools this fall. And while the move-in process has already begun for many schools, there will likely be more colleges that change their plans in the weeks ahead, especially after outbreaks have forced The University of Notre Dame and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to move their classes online.
Summer at Chicago Scholars typically sees our College Success Team spending the majority of their time supporting rising college students in preparing for the critical transition from high school to college. In workshops they attend alongside their future classmates, recent high school graduates are guided with registering for orientation, maintaining a budget, combating imposter syndrome (a psychological pattern in which students doubt their accomplishments or that they deserved to be admitted), and addressing other common barriers that we know can derail a first-generation and low-income student’s plan to matriculate or ability to persist in college. This year, in addition to these topics, we also focused on supporting students through the uncertainty of not knowing whether they would be headed off to school in the fall or taking their classes on a computer at home in Chicago.
Of course, what we know about the Coronavirus is changing constantly. And universities must respond to the latest information and guidelines from the CDC. But what is key is how colleges are (or are not) communicating with students to help them prepare for the fall and what sort of experience the schools are designing for students—either on campus or at home.
For those headed to schools with in-person instruction, students can expect it to look quite different than it does in the movies. As part of its welcome activities, for example, the University of Iowa has announced it will randomly award prizes from a roving cart to students they see wearing masks and practicing social distancing. Several colleges including Rice University in Houston, Texas, have constructed multiple outdoor structures for classes that will still allow for students to sit six feet apart. Like many other institutions, Sewanee, The University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, is requiring all students receive a negative COVID-19 test result upon arrival before they can access their residence halls. But despite all of the planning and protocols in place at these schools and others, the outbreaks on campuses this week have shown us that it’s crucial all colleges holding in-person classes have a clear plan on what to do if an outbreak occurs. The safety of all students is paramount, and we cannot have students stranded on campuses like they were last spring with little to no warning.
For those studying at home, it is undeniable that inequities will be amplified, with students having different access to technology and private places to tune in to live-streamed classes. This is only compounded when a student holds significant responsibilities either within or outside of the home—taking care of siblings or going to work to help support their family’s income. Importantly, federal work study opportunities will necessarily look different this fall, too. And while most schools are attempting to create as many remote work study positions as possible, it is inevitable that there will not be a sufficient number of jobs to match the demand from students for whom work study is a big part of their financial aid package. This means that they will have to maintain their current employment or seek another position to secure those dollars.
In their communications, it is crucial that colleges help incoming students understand the long-term implications of their award letters, which are already notoriously difficult to decipher. For instance, while Room & Board charges will not be included for a student who is remote in the first semester, it is key to consider that they will be in future years so that families can plan accordingly. First-generation and low-income families are not only navigating the unforeseen impact of the pandemic right now, but also the entire college going process. Colleges must consider this as they transmit vital details about updated plans—providing materials translated to additional languages when necessary.
Last, but perhaps most importantly, research shows the significance of community building and establishing a sense of belonging early on for all students, but especially for underrepresented students. The first few weeks are considered crucial. So, whether in person or online, it will be essential that colleges create opportunities for bonding and the sharing of stories. What cannot be lost in the shuffle from one reopening plan to another is the fact that students, including our Scholars, have worked incredibly hard to get to college. Now, schools must do their part to create pathways to the people and resources that will help them succeed.
For our part, Chicago Scholars will continue to support our Scholars throughout their entire college career and beyond through mentorship, connections to leadership opportunities, and a network of partners invested in their success as the future leaders of Chicago. When they graduated from high school and made their college choices, the 650+ Scholars in our College Class of 2024 were paired with a staff member from our College Success Team who will check in with them regularly—intervening when necessary to provide access to wellness resources, funds for emergencies and life-changing opportunities, and a network of trained peer mentors. We also greatly value the support from our college partners, including those at the Platinum Tier, who have stepped up to provide a campus liaison for all Chicago Scholars who enroll.
While there are still a number of unanswered questions about what college will look like this fall, we do know already that our Scholars have proved they are agile and can adapt to changing circumstances, having completed their senior years remotely, and as first-generation and low-income students without a roadmap, having successfully navigated the college decision making process in the midst of a pandemic. Now, it is time for colleges to prove that they can similarly adapt to the needs of their incoming students.
Regardless of our own personal or organizational stances around whether colleges should be holding their classes in person or virtually, this is the reality of higher education this fall. What’s so important now is how colleges and universities are caring for the safety of their students and communicating changes to them. Scholars, please know we are here for you throughout these changes. If you are concerned about how to maintain focus when all your classes are online; if you are seeking support in advocating for what you need for your mental and physical health when you return to campus; or if you have changed your own college choice, reach out to your College Success Team contact or email email@example.com.