Leaders of Beloit College, a private liberal arts college in Wisconsin, obviously are not alone in trying to plan for the upcoming academic year in a period of great uncertainty. As at almost every other college and university across the country, administrators are having to prepare for various scenarios. Can in-person learning resume in time for the fall, or will students need to start their fall coursework online? If in-person learning does resume, will it need to be suspended again if COVID-19 cases begin to increase?
“We’re making all these weighty decisions about the future and what to do with refunds for room and board, and at the height of all that decision making, it felt a lot like triage, a lot like a defensive posture,” said Eric Boynton, Beloit’s provost. He asked himself, “What is the decisive step that we can take at this moment” to inspire confidence and hope in what the fall will look like?
To that end, Beloit has announced that it is breaking the semester into two modules in which students take two courses each.
“The aspiration is to have a residential learning experience next year, but if COVID rages, this flexibility allows us to have it only affect half a semester, possibly,” Boynton said. “Let’s say it creeps into September, then that first module is online, but if continues to dissipate, then we’re able to bring students at this hinge point. It’s a break in the semester; it’s an obvious time to bring students into residence.”
“It also lessens the disruption in the sense of conducting four online courses at one time is a lot of pressure for faculty, and what we’re finding -- and I think this is not just at Beloit but across the nation -- is that juggling four online courses is a lot for students,” he said. “Limiting the online experience to two courses at a time is better for faculty and staff and student learning.”
Beloit moved quickly in rolling out a module model. Boynton said he had a conversation about the idea with Beloit’s president, Scott Bierman, on March 21. On March 23, the Academic Strategic Planning Committee, which is made up of faculty members, voted to recommend moving forward with the proposal. And by March 25, the modules were approved by the Emergency Academic Authority, a group of faculty members and administrators charged with approving changes to academic programs when “operations of the College and the ability of the Academic Senate to gather are disrupted significantly due to local, regional, or national events, such as but not limited to a catastrophic weather event or a pandemic.”
Matt Tedesco, a professor of philosophy and the chair of the Academic Strategic Planning Committee, said faculty understand the rationale for the change and support it.
“We’ve tried to reach out to faculty pretty thoroughly; we’ve had two separate faculty meetings on Zoom,” he said. “We all recognize this is not a small ask. This does involve significant work over the summer to rethink our courses for the year.”
Tedesco said the idea of moving to modules was discussed as part of an institutional planning process during the 2014-15 academic year, but it never got past the exploratory stage. The public health crisis caused by the coronavirus presented an urgent opportunity to put the idea into action.
“We believe it offers us the best chance to be proactive in a situation where we control so little,” Tedesco said.
Lucie Lapovksy, a consultant and former president of Mercy College in New York, said she was impressed when she read about Beloit’s rethinking of the academic calendar. (She said Beloit is not a client.)
“I thought they were thinking outside the box in a creative way for an unusual situation that may in the long run turn out to serve them really well,” she said. “One of the questions everyone is asking is what are the innovations and the changes brought on by how you’re operating during the virus that you’re going to decide are going to stick?”
Beloit has struggled with enrollment fluctuations in recent years: after enrolling entering classes of 299 students each in 2013 and 2014, it enrolled exceptionally large classes of 392 in fall 2015 and 382 in 2016. Then first-year enrollment fell to 323 students in 2017, to 266 in 2018 and 259 last fall.
Boynton, the provost, said the original target was to enroll 250 to 260 new students this fall.
“We had targets, and now the world is upside down,” he said. “We know -- and Beloit is not the only institution in this situation -- that it’s hard to predict what the incoming class will look like. There are so many variables.”
In addition to rolling out the shift to modules, Beloit has also announced several other changes in response to COVID-19, including freezing tuition costs and matching in-state tuition rates at public flagship universities in the region.
“The Midwest Flagship Match means that for prospective students who are residents of six Midwestern states -- Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin -- we’ll make sure that your cost to attend Beloit will match or beat the tuition at your state’s flagship campus,” Beloit promises on its website.
“We’re demonstrating that Beloit is an institution that tackles these problems,” Boynton said.