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Students walk on campus at the University of South Carolina, which will open fully in person this fall.

Sean Rayford/Stringer/Getty Images

Good news about the COVID-19 vaccine couldn’t have come at a better time for college admissions officers. Dozens of colleges and universities have recently announced that they’ll be open in person this fall after waiting weeks or months to go public with fall plans.

Colleges' fall announcements started a few weeks ago as vaccination rates began to pick up, but student inboxes and news sites have been flooded with fall reopening news this month, due in part to the ongoing admissions season. Experts call March and April prime yield season, during which colleges and universities work tirelessly to build a strong incoming class. After a year of exhausting transitions, students are looking for certainty and normalcy, and promising those things could give institutions a leg up as admitted students decide where to enroll.

“After being in quarantine for the better part of a year, if not a year, many people -- and that includes students -- are anxious to get back to some semblance of normal,” said David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “A big part of the residential college experience is arriving on campus and living in a dorm and doing the things that we all associate with college.”

The stakes are high. Undergraduate enrollment across the country has been declining since the pandemic began a year ago. It will take effort for colleges to bring students back into the higher education fold -- especially students of color, who have left the sector at higher rates than their white peers during the pandemic.

“The idea that a college will be opening is big news to prospective students,” Hawkins said. “That is an especially important message to get out to help ensure that the class you’ve enrolled is at least something close to what you would have projected in normal times.”

Though colleges’ fall plans may be primarily driven by public health news, communications to students and the timing of those communications are always strategic, Hawkins said. Stephanie Coldren, vice president for marketing and external relations at Goucher College, echoed Hawkins’s comments and noted the importance of announcing an in-person fall semester for residential colleges like Goucher.

“If this past year taught us anything, it’s that uncertainty has become a certainty in these times, and so the more that we can put out strong messaging that reinforces the fact that we will be open, we will be residential, it only reassures prospective students, current students and their families that we’re moving in the right direction,” Coldren said. “Part of what we offer is that residential experience and the community that is built out of being a residential campus.”

Goucher, a small private college just outside Baltimore, said this week that all students will be able to return to campus for the fall semester. Several other small private colleges, including Blue Mountain College, Finlandia University and Kentucky Wesleyan College, have announced in-person fall semesters.

Honest advertising is part of any good admissions strategy, said Ronald Rochon, president of the University of Southern Indiana. Being up front with students and parents about what kind of experience students will have at the university is essential to swaying their decision.

“Admissions is always on my mind with regard to, not just new people in seats, but also ways in which we convey a very accurate understanding of what people will receive when they come to the campus,” he said.

Public universities and university systems have also been churning out in-person-fall announcements in recent weeks. The University of Tennessee announced Thursday it would offer a fully in-person campus experience this fall, which means teaching in classrooms at capacity, returning to normal campus housing, reopening dining halls, fully staffing campus student services and allowing more fans at athletic events, among many other things. The University of Alabama system also announced this week that it would return to fully in-person instruction with no classroom capacity restrictions this fall. East Stroudsburg University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the University of Arizona system, the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University and the University of South Carolina were among those making similar announcements regarding this fall.

The timing of the vaccine rollout is fortunate, said Shannon Ellis, vice president of student services at the University of Nevada, Reno. University officials wanted to let students know what to expect for the upcoming fall semester but hesitated to make any announcements without more concrete public health information. With recent vaccine progress and updated information from county health officials, university leaders went public with their plans.

Because of the new information about the long-term effects of COVID-19, making a decision about this fall felt even more serious than past reopening decisions, Ellis said.

“We clearly understand that we’re talking about people’s lives and their health and not just getting sick for a short period of time,” she said. “There’s an extra responsibility in considering bringing back students and faculty and staff who have not been back on campus for various reasons, whether it's health or childcare or caring for an elder.”

Community colleges have also rolled out fall announcements in recent weeks. Itawamba Community College in Fulton, Miss., mostly returned to in-person instruction for the spring semester but recently announced it will offer in-person classes for the fall semester. The college went public with the fall plans because it knows that its prospective pool of students will be looking to make college decisions soon, Jay Allen, president of the college, wrote in an email.

Any bump from a reopening announcement may be blunted by the fact that so many colleges are doing it, and some college officials may have felt the need to go public with fall plans because their competitors were doing so. That wasn't the case at Itawamba, Allen said.

“Often we lean on trends by other institutions to know what’s coming down the pipeline,” he said. “However, this was a decision that had been discussed for months before we announced.”

Rend Lake College in Ina, Ill., Northeast Mississippi Community College, Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan and Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis recently announced in-person fall semesters.

Not all colleges have planned to bring all students back in the fall. Several community colleges in California, which has been hit especially hard by COVID-19, have decided to stick with hybrid or online learning models through the calendar year. The Los Rios Community College District, which includes four community colleges near Sacramento, said it was planning a hybrid online-in-person semester for fall 2021. The San Mateo Community College District will also remain mostly online for the fall 2021 semester.

Experts agree that no institution should make a decision about the fall based on admissions prospects alone. But whether they chose to open in person this fall or stay online, colleges would benefit from telling students what they’re planning before the May decision deadline, Hawkins and Coldren said.

“It’s advantageous for them to make that decision before May,” Coldren said. “If a first-year student is between two different institutions and one is saying vehemently that they are going to open and the other is uncertain, it would make sense that the student would probably lean more toward the institution that is prepared to open.”

College officials are feeling optimistic about reopening, but none have forgotten last fall. Many institutions announced in-person fall semesters last spring only to modify or reverse their plans weeks before the fall semester began -- or in some cases after students were already on campus. Lots of institutions are planning to continue masking, social distancing and enhanced cleaning protocols to keep their fall reopening plans as robust as possible.

"There's always a contingency that we will have to walk back," Coldren said. "With all of the uncertainty that we've dealt with, that's been a really real lesson that a lot of institutions have learned."

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