Preparing for Fall 2020 Online

By Rajkamal Rao  

The Drag at the University of Texas, Austin. Photo Credit: Rao Advisors LLC

Incoming college freshmen are having to contend with one of the most consequential decisions of their college careers as they consider the Fall 2020 term. To attend a university campus? Take hybrid classes? Or go online? 

So fraught has been this dilemma that even the U.S. government appeared unsure of what to do. Applying decades-old rules to manage the huge international student population, the government shocked the world when it announced that foreign students taking online-only classes had to leave the country or switch to an institution that offers in-person or hybrid classes - arguing that it would be hard to monitor students if they're at a different location but taking classes online. After a hue and cry, and a lawsuit from Harvard and MIT, joined by colleges in the University of California system, the government backed down. 

Going to college has always been about in-person friendships and relationships that last a lifetime. Cutting out one semester out of eight seems like such a big slice lost. For high school students locked at home since March, packing bags and heading to the college dorm was the most anticipated event. To now consider the possibility of extending the lockdown at home without making new friends, even as high school friends attend different institutions and no longer have much in common, is devastating for an incoming freshman.

Looking at the bright side

Although only 10% of the 1,200 colleges that the Chronicle of Higher Education is tracking are going fully online, some of the largest institutions are in this list: Harvard, all the colleges of the California State University system (23 campuses), the University of Alaska at Anchorage, the University of Arkansas (all campuses), the University of California at Irvine, UCLA, Rutgers, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Southern California and Wayne State University.

The obvious concern is about student safety as cases of coronavirus rapidly rise, even though there is plenty of evidence to suggest that young people are less likely to fall sick from the virus.

For a freshman, adjusting to college life requires independently managing both life and work, that is, academics. By taking classes online, freshmen will get used to college academics - attending college classes, listening to lectures, completing project assignments, taking tests, and managing time - all from the comfort of home. When students hope to return to campus for Spring 2021, they would be pros at college academics having completed an entire term online. All they then have to do is to adjust to college life, which should be easier to do.

College students are naturally attracted to campus life because the environment is designed to promote freedom, away from home. Students explore new topics, engage in debates, make new friends and hobbies, shed old ones, and mingle freely without reservation.

But attending a campus during the Covid-19 pandemic requires students to give up most of these freedoms. Students will be forced to honor social distancing, so loud parties are impossible. Class density will be reduced to 40% of normal, so the classroom doesn't feel like it usually does. Masks will be required to be worn at all times, an inconvenience for students who are engaged in vibrant conversation. Contact-tracing apps, while voluntary, infringe on student privacy rights, tracking student movement all over campus. Penalties for non-compliance can be steep, with fines, and even suspension. All of these headaches can be avoided until institutions come to terms with the pandemic and open up campuses with few or no restrictions.

Lastly, there's the issue of cost. For many families hurt economically during the pandemic, not having to pay for room and board can save thousands of dollars, in some cases, over $10,000.

On balance, staying home for Fall 2020 is not as bad as it seems.

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