Hopes for my Daughter’s Fall Semester

Safety, caring, and progression.

August 6, 2020

In a few weeks, my younger daughter will return to her campus (a flagship public) to begin her junior year. Her courses will range from entirely to mostly online. She was given the option of an all-remote semester but chose to return to her off-campus apartment. This decision was driven, hoping that she will get some residential learning experience (if limited), and some social experience (if distanced and limited). We will see how it goes.

As a parent of a first-year grad student and a junior, how higher ed is navigating the pandemic is highly personal. Working in higher ed, and spending most of my time thinking about college during a pandemic, does not provide any unique insight or expertise in your own kids' COVID-19 college experience. Like the rest of us, all I can do is hope for the best.

What do I hope my younger daughter's junior year will be like at her school? If I could wave my magic wand, her university would focus on the following three priorities: safety, caring, and progression.


As far as I can tell, my kid's school is placing an enormous emphasis on safety. She will be tested at home before coming to campus and tested again when she arrives. Testing will continue throughout the semester. She had to participate in an online training module on safe behaviors and sign a comprehensive pledge about behaviors and activities.

My sense is that de-densification, social distancing, masks, barriers, and other public health measures are being carefully thought out - and will be enforced. Like every school that is planning to bring back some proportion of their students, my daughter's school is investing enormous time, resources, and thought to keeping the university and surrounding community safe.

Will this all be enough? We don't know. My wife and I would not be surprised if the virus spreads through her campus sometime during the semester, causing the school to send everyone home. Her school, like every school, is planning for that possibility. The watchwords seem to be intentionality, flexibility, and vigilance.

Is it a good idea for her to return to campus? After spending five months living at home, she is desperate (like every other college student) to go back to school. To have her own life, to see her friends, and to be independent and autonomous.

From everything that I have been able to observe across higher ed, the colleges and universities that are deciding to resume some form of residential operations are doing so in response to student and faculty needs and desires while doing everything possible to create a safe environment. The claim that campuses are resuming residential operations for mostly financial reasons - to fill up the residence halls - does not track with everything that I am hearing around motivations and costs among university leaders. They are trying to do the right thing and are making hard decisions with imperfect information.


While safety is the priority that I hope is first at my kid's university, a close second is caring. When I think about caring, I'm thinking about how the people at the university care for my daughter's whole person. This is the caring that professors bring to their teaching, mentoring, guidance, and coaching. This is the caring that student life professionals bring to planning and executing non-curricular activities. And this is the caring that other adult educators on campus - from librarians to academic support professionals to technology professionals - exhibit in their direct and indirect interactions with students.

Caring, I'd argue, is the glue that holds the higher education bundle together. One of the trends that I worry about the most is that we are moving in a direction where only students from privileged backgrounds will have access to the bundled residential learning experience. The college experience is so much more than what happens only in the classroom. My family's investment in our daughter's higher education experience goes far beyond the credits and the degree. It is an investment in an infrastructure that will enable her to develop all of her skills and talents, integrate herself in a network of friends and mentors, and discover and nurture her strengths.

How caring is operationalized during COVID-19 is the most important, and I'd say most difficult, challenge that higher ed now faces. Colleges and universities will need different strategies for remote and hybrid learning. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. What is essential is that schools are intentional and explicit in their efforts to care for their students. That caring be placed at the center of course design and teaching, student support services, and student life activities.


The third priority that I hope that my daughter's school is focused on is progression. As a parent, I need to see that my kid is progressing towards her degree. That she is on track, and all the risk factors that college students have for attrition and non-completion are considered and addressed. We don't expect that the college experience will be perfect under COVID-19. Nor do we think that it will resemble what came before. The perfect should not be the enemy of the good in her path to a degree.

The most expensive college education is one that does not result in a diploma. We don't know how COVID-19 will impact time to graduation and completion rates nationwide. We can be sure that the pandemic is elevating the risks for non-completion. What I want from my kid's school is for everyone on campus to be invested in her success - and that success means getting to graduation.

Ideally, the unit of analysis that every school should be operating under is the individual learner. For this time, I'd like to see less focus on courses and curriculum and even professors, and more focus on that one student outcome of progression towards graduation.


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