After basically the entire higher education community closed its campuses to in-person instruction since mid- to late March because of the growing coronavirus pandemic, a number of schools are now beginning to announce tentative plans for reopening this fall, subject to further coronavirus-related developments. Among them are major campuses like the University of Alabama (UA) at Tuscaloosa, the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and Texas Tech in Lubbock, as well as UA campuses in Birmingham and Huntsville, the 15 other schools in the UNC system and North Dakota’s 11 publicly supported colleges and universities.
The impact on the respective schools’ dining services has not yet been detailed but are expected to conform with general ongoing policies designed to minimize the risk of passing the coronavirus, such as social distancing, extensive cleaning/sanitizing and elimination of multiple-contact platforms like self-serve stations.
Unknown at this point is how many students will be showing up on the campuses. ABC News recently reported that “nearly one in six graduating seniors, according to a poll by the Baltimore-based Art & Science Group, now indicate that due to the coronavirus pandemic, they will likely revise their plans of attending a four-year college in the fall and take a gap year.”
Meanwhile, international students—a growing component of U.S. college enrollments—are likely to continue to see travel restrictions, while some current students may be reluctant to come back for financial, safety or other reasons.
McKinsey & Co., which follows higher education, also recently put out a summary of what it expects depending on how the coronavirus crisis develops. It sees significant budget pressures, even under the most optimistic (“virus contained”) scenario.
“In the virus-contained scenario,” it reports, “current-year tuition revenues will likely fall, given refunds for study-abroad programs and the likely reduced persistence of students. Also, because online programs have traditionally been cheaper, universities are already facing calls to refund portions of regular tuition. Next year will likely see fewer international students enrolled. Auxiliary revenues (room, board, athletics, rentals, grants, and other nontuition revenue sources) will erode as refunds or vouchers for next year are issued for housing, meals, and parking—and if summer programming is disrupted or canceled.”
UA-Tuscaloosa, UNC-Chapel Hill and Texas Tech all have robust campus cultures driven by successful sports programs—though how those programs will operate next school year is still to be determined—and those programs and cultures may help them entice more students to return to campus.
How these announcements will affect the rest of the higher education community remains to be seen as colleges and universities are all basically subject to their individual states’ policies on the lifting of coronavirus restrictions. However, the announcements may also start to put some pressure on other schools to develop policies to attract what will almost certainly be a reduced population in-person students in fall 2020.