Right now, the likeliest scenarios for the fall semester are yet another semester of totally online classes or a mixture of small face-to-face classes and large lectures online or offered in a hybrid mode. Either way, the traditional college experience -- intercollegiate athletics, fraternity and sorority life, and much else -- will be missing.
Without the traditional campus experience, much of colleges’ appeal will be lost -- with profound economic consequences, especially for most private colleges and many regional public comprehensives.
How can campuses provide some semblance of the campus experience in the age of social distancing? This is, of course, the single biggest challenge facing college administrators over the next academic year.
Without clubs, parties, concerts, athletics and face-to-face networking, spending large sums on tuition scarcely seems worthwhile.
Dining halls, dorms, arenas, stadiums: these are the places and spaces where identification with a college are forged -- and infections are spread.
Perhaps campuses will be lucky, with serious cases of COVID-19 relatively rare among traditional-aged college students -- and among the grad students and other 20- and 30-somethings who will be called upon to manage and oversee their day-to-day activities.
But the future of most private nonprofits and many regional public comprehensives will depend on their ability to provide a genuine college experience.
What might that look like? How can institutions create a sense of belonging in the face of the current uncertainties?
Let me suggest two different possible paths forward.
1. Campus Lite
For many colleges and universities, a fully online fall semester is unimaginable for budgetary reasons. Not many students would enroll or re-enroll if all they are to receive are online classes. Even substantial discounts might prove insufficient. The show must go on.
But in the interests of student health, the on-campus experience will necessarily be very different. Large concentrations of students must be avoided. Large lectures will take place online or in a hybrid mode with perhaps half the students attending one day and the other half on a different day. Attendance at athletic events and concerts will be severely restricted.
But while the college experience will change, I don’t think it needs to be worse, as long as we think creatively. Here are some suggestions:
- Decentralize the student experience. Break students into cohorts -- smaller units that share common interests. This is not a novel idea: we already recognize the value effectiveness of learning communities, meta majors, honors programs and first-year interest groups. Consider giving each cohort a dedicated faculty director and adviser, preferably including a signature class.
- Emphasize active engagement rather than spectatorship. When I was an Oberlin undergraduate half a century ago, the heads of athletics, Jack Scott, Tommy Smith and Paul Hoch, emphasized universal intramurals rather than intercollegiate athletics. Their goal was to have every student participate at some level in sports, rather than watch athletes compete. This is an idea that deserves to be resurrected.
- Tap the power of mentoring. Faculty mentoring, near-peer mentoring and alumni mentoring are low-scale ways to invigorate the student experience and help students academically but also in terms of their professional and personal development. Some mentoring can take place face-to-face and one to one or in very small groups. Some can take place digitally.
- Stress experiential and project-based learning. Not all learning needs to take place in traditional classrooms. Many of the most meaningful learning experiences take place alone or in small groups. Service learning and civic engagement activities offer ways for students to give back. Maker spaces tap students’ ingenuity and creativity. Research projects develop the planning, analytical and communication skills that higher education values.
2. The Digital Campus
What should campuses do if worse comes to worse and a face-to-face reopening becomes impossible?
We’ve seen what it’s like to move all classes online, and the results haven’t been pretty. Asking faculty to shift all classes online and students to juggle five classes without the structure of a normal school day has proven less than adequate.
So, perhaps it’s time to radically rethink the student experience, both academically and socially.
- Maximize student-faculty interaction. Offer the highest-demand courses in a MOOC-like format, which will free other faculty to offer more small seminars or tutorials, with lots of mentoring and student-faculty interaction.
- Simplify the first-year experience. Make the first-year classes as interesting and engaging as possible. To be sure, key gateway classes need to be offered, including calculus and introductory biology and chemistry. But other classes might appeal directly to student interests, such as race or gender and the American experience or pandemics from multidisciplinary perspectives.
- Make high-impact practices an integral part of the academic experience. A curator at the Frick Collection introduces a cohort of Hunter students to one of the museum’s masterworks: J. M. W. Turner's Harbor of Dieppe. A vice president at the New-York Historical Society offers a behind-the-scenes look at how that institution is responding to coronavirus. Offer virtual field trips and online conversations with guest speakers.
- Emphasize skills building and project-based learning. Why not teach students how to use Excel or manage projects? Why not introduce them to digital design or coding? Why not have the students develop an app? BBC is offering a star-packed line-up of televised K-12 courses: Spanish taught by a leading footballer, music taught by an award-winning singer, a descendant of Edward III teaching children 5-7 about Henry VIII; David Attenborough teaching about maps. The celebrities will, in turn, be supported on screen and off by master teachers and other educational professionals. Shouldn’t higher ed be just as creative?
- Create virtual environments where students who share common interests can interact. These might involve business or health care or law, the arts, or sports or video games. Pair continuing students with newly admitted students or alumni with more advanced students to discuss careers.
- Create virtual events. Move undergraduate research day or arts showcases online. There’s no reason not to celebrate student inventiveness, discovery or creativity. Just do this in an online format. Or offer discussions of movies, or share student-created videos, or create a chance for students to share their personal stories.
- Showcase charismatic faculty. Why not move away from a course-centric experience and give students a chance to “meet” a wider range of faculty members who can share their expertise and insights?
- Set up online study groups, tutoring sessions, support groups and skills workshops. This is an unmatched opportunity to offer workshops on financial literacy, résumé writing, student loans, preparing for graduate school, effective interview techniques, job and internship searches, relationship advice, etiquette, and asking for recommendations. Offer physical and emotional wellness workshops offering support groups, stress management classes and workout sessions.
Many are convinced that the current age of social distancing will prove to be a brief interlude before a return to normality. I am more doubtful. Even before the current health crisis, students were already pushing for more blended experiences and needed more online support services.
In retrospect, we may discover that the longer-term impact of social distancing is to accelerate pre-existing trends: toward an education that is more skills and outcomes focused; that stresses active inquiry, problem solving and projects; that gives many more students access to high-impact practices; and that envisions the college experience not as matter of fulfilling requirements but as a journey in which students acquire a host of skills and literacies that better prepare them for future careers.
Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.