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Last week saw the release of a series of surveys of students and parents about the coming fall semester. The message of these surveys: students want a fall semester as close as possible to last fall's.

Here are details:

15 Fall Scenarios

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 page views -- 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, which suggested some students do not like online education.)

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 the relative importance of 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.

Other Surveys

Thirty-three percent of high school seniors say they are likely to defer or cancel an admission offer that is conditional on attending an all-online college in the fall.

That is the finding of a Carnegie Dartlet survey of 2,800 high school seniors. The surveys was conducted in May, making it one of the most recent among many of high school seniors. A major theme of those surveys has been student reluctance to consider all-online models. And this survey provided plenty of evidence for that view.

Ninety-five percent said that they would honor commitments made to colleges that plan to reopen in the fall with social distancing measures in place. But the survey also indicated that the later an institution announces its policy, the more apprehension students will have about it.

The California State University system announced this month that most classes in the fall would be online. But many other colleges -- including such prominent institutions as the University of Texas at Austin -- are planning for in-person classes in the fall. Both approaches are being criticized by some -- Cal State for being too fearful of what might happen and the campuses that are opening for taking a big risk with student and employee health.

But the data from Carnegie Dartlet point to another type of risk: students not enrolling at colleges that are all online. And there are many campuses that could not afford to lose one-third of their entering class.

Two Surveys

Carnegie Dartlet first surveyed students in March and then again in May.

In the six weeks between surveys, the concerns of students about COVID-19 negatively impacting their education increased significantly. Around three in five respondents said they had “a lot” of concern or worse, while in March that number was around one in two. Additionally, the number of students who said they had little or no concern about COVID-19 dropped from 16 percent to 9 percent.

Despite this shift, students are holding strong to their planned college education. Intent to delay enrolling did not increase from March to May, and in some groups it actually dropped slightly. While students may be more careful in making their decisions because of the outbreak, they are not dropping their plans. Only 2 percent of students have plans to delay presently, and 42 percent will not delay under any circumstance (up from 34 percent in March).

Having a firm plan at the college has an impact, as does the nature of the plan. More than half of students who hadn't decided where to go by May 1 said their likelihood to commit to a college would drop if it went entirely online, and three out of four are less likely to commit to a college that doesn't have a solidified plan in place by the month classes begin.

And then there's money.

Nearly two-thirds of students said that a college making no additional resources available makes them less likely to attend. Adding additional student loan opportunities shifts many to a neutral standing.

The other options -- yearlong grants, increased scholarships or reduced tuition or fees -- were all rated as significantly increasing the likelihood of attending a college,

Female, Latinx or low-socioeconomic-status students were most motivated by these options.

The vast majority of high school seniors (95 percent) said a move to online coursework, even partially, requires at least some change to the cost of attendance.

Respondents reacted to scenarios of a college going online for part of the fall semester or going online for the entirety of fall. About a third said they expected a slight reduction in cost, a third would seek a significant reduction in cost and a quarter were satisfied with simply waiving campus fees associated with living on campus.

Interest in living on campus has returned to its pre-COVID score, with nearly 50 percent saying it’s the only college living experience they will consider. Every single demographic group had a significant rise in interest in living on campus. Students who have already committed to a college have a very high interest score, suggesting again that going to campus, even with some distancing or other measures in place, is critical to their college experience.

And More Surveys

Carnegie Dartlet's was not the only recent new survey about students dealing with the pandemic.

Kennedy & Company released a study that also examined student reluctance to enroll in an entirely online environment. But the Kennedy study looked at current students, not this fall's freshmen.

Kennedy based its results on a survey of 12 different institutions (with more than 15,000 student responses). It found a nearly 30 percent gap -- 92 percent to 63 percent -- in likeliness to re-enroll if fall instruction is on campus versus fully online.

How to assure that students will re-enroll?

The one action the survey results suggest would increase likelihood for students to return in the fall is to guarantee on-campus classes. The next most likely items include firm plans in place for managing a COVID-19 outbreak including social distancing (40 percent of respondents) and increasing production quality of online courses (31 percent of respondents.)

What About Parents?

The data science firm Civis Analytics released a survey of parents and the public financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

It found that job security is a pressing issue -- especially for minority Americans. Thirty-five percent of employed Americans think it is likely that they will lose their job in the next three months. However, this number is 32 percent for employed white Americans, compared to 45 percent of employed black Americans and 40 percent of employed Latinx Americans.

More parents (almost 50 percent) are reporting a change in their child’s post-high school plan. Less than half (43 percent) plan to go to a four-year college, down about 7 percent from April 23.

And LendingTree surveyed more than 1,000 parents with children under 18 to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting them. It found that 36 percent percent of parents tapped their child’s college fund to help cover expenses due to the financial strain caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

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