What Students Want This Fall

Niche surveyed students on the "15 Fall Scenarios" blog post that attracted massive traffic. Here are the results.

May 20, 2020
 
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Few blog posts at Inside Higher Ed have generated as much interest as "15 Fall Scenarios," by Joshua Kim of Dartmouth College and Edward J. Maloney of Georgetown University. It received more than 327,000 pageviews -- and it continues to get more.

The piece ran in April and offered colleges 15 scenarios for the upcoming fall semester, from back to normal to a fully remote program. The timing was perfect, as colleges were just starting to consider what they would do. In the weeks since, colleges have not been uniform in their planning, but most of the options colleges are taking can be found in the post.

Of course one question was: What would students think?

Niche, a website that reviews colleges for prospective students, decided to survey those who come to its website about the scenarios. Some of what it found from a survey of 10,000 students -- in high school and college -- is similar to other surveys. But its findings reinforce the view of many college leaders that getting students to campus is the best way to function … if it can be done safely.

Three scenarios -- holding in-person classes like before, offering classes so that some were in person and others online, and having three- to four-week block schedules (in person) -- appealed to a majority of undergraduates. One-third of students said they would transfer to another institution if their college only had online options.

For purposes of the survey, Niche converted the 15 scenarios into 10 and asked students if the choice was appealing or not.

Option Appealing Unappealing Unsure
In-person classes 78% 10% 12%
Flexible block schedule 51% 16% 33%
In person and online (simultaneously) 53% 24% 23%
Structured gap year 36% 39% 25%
First-year students on campus, upper-class students learn online 23% 50% 27%
Core classes taught on campus, other classes online 34% 42% 24%
Students learn online with a few face-to-face experiences 32% 50% 18%
Students live on campus but take classes online 28% 54% 19%
Online learning 29% 56% 16%
Delay start of fall semester 12% 70% 17%

The survey also asked about which scenarios would prompt the students to think about transferring. One-third of students said they would transfer if their college continued online instruction for the fall semester. (This is similar to findings of other recent surveys.)

Niche also asked about other issues. In response to the question "Do you feel that tuition (not including room and board) should be the same if you are taking online or hybrid classes vs. in person?" 79 percent of students said no.

In addition, Niche asked about four features of traditional campus life.

Feature of campus life Very important Important Neutral Somewhat important Not at all important N/A
How important is it that campus housing opens in the fall? 33% 25% 22% 7% 11% 3%
How important is it that social events return to the university? 27% 34% 21% 8% 9% 1%
How important is it that athletics return in the fall? 22% 22% 23% 12% 19% 2%
How important is it that arts events return in the fall? 14% 22% 31% 15% 17% 1%

Will Patch, enrollment marketing leader for Niche, said that it was a "tough question" to determine what a college should do, based on the results.

"I think it depends upon who their students are. There will be faculty, staff and students uncomfortable with any scenario," he said. "My recommendation, taken as just opinion, of course, would be to provide as much flexibility as possible. Offering blocks of HyFlex courses to accommodate the needs of students, faculty and staff seems like a good experiment for the fall. That would allow students who need the stability and access to technology that campus offers to not be left behind while also allowing those who feel more comfortable being remote, or who need to for health reasons, to do so."

Patch added, "The combination of the two scenarios would allow for maximum flexibility, and breaks between blocks could be used for evaluation and deep cleaning. This also would be closest to the scenarios most likely to retain students saying they were strongly considering transferring regardless. In this scenario masks and social distancing should be mandatory for anyone on campus -- opening things up is risky enough that leaders should require safety measures. If leaders want to incentivize online learning, they could even offer discounts for those who choose to study remotely."

Kim and Maloney did not play a role in the survey, but they found it interesting nonetheless.

Kim said he was struck by the fact that students "really value the social experience" they get from being on campus.

How colleges that may not be able to deliver that should compensate is a real challenge, he said.

"We really don't deal well with uncertainty," he said. "No one knows how this will play out."

Maloney said, "It's really interesting that students are so focused on campus," even with the block scheduling for which Colorado College is best known. Beloit College is planning a version for the fall where students take two courses at a time for a shorter time than a traditional semester, and then take two more courses.

"We all want to be back on campus," he said. But how soon that is realistic is unclear.

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