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How to Make the Most of Going Back to School This COVID-19 Fall

This week Brendan Bell and Cody Christensen take over Straight Up to share some reflections on what it's like to be starting graduate school this coronavirus fall. Both have just stepped away from hugely successful turns on my AEI Education team. Brendan was a high school social studies teacher before serving as my program manager and is now starting up as a law student at the University of Pennsylvania. After three years with AEI's Center on Higher Education Reform, Cody is entering the Ph.D. program in education policy at Vanderbilt. Drawing on their experience in ed. policy, Brendan and Cody will talk about returning to school amidst a global pandemic and the various issues it raises.  

—Rick

As colleges and universities continue to make decisions about whether to go online for the fall, students are weighing all their options—from transferring, to taking a gap year, to staying the course regardless of what unfolds. Few traditional-aged students are excited by the prospect of a virtual semester, especially for those that hoped for a "normal" college experience.

Not long ago, we found ourselves in the same boat. As two newly-admitted graduate students, our dreams of studying in luscious college quads, forming study groups with new friends, or playing intramural basketball games quickly faded with the onset of the pandemic. But despite the uncertainty about the semester ahead, we both made the decision to leave our jobs at the American Enterprise Institute and return to college—knowing full-well that our experiences will be far from normal.

After all, an abundance of research shows that earning a college degree is still "worth it," even if the semester isn't how students originally expected it to look (something we'll explore later this week in more detail). And with so many disappointed about the possibility of an online fall, we thought it'd be helpful to share some reflections on how students can still get the most out of the months ahead.

First, it's important to be patient with your faculty, professors, and deans. As of this writing, only about a quarter of the 3,000 colleges tracked by the College Crisis Initiative are planning to offer exclusively in-person instruction. The vast majority of colleges have plans to be fully online or offer hybrid models. Since the summer, colleges have continuously updated and changed their reopening plans as new information becomes available about COVID-19. These updates will surely continue, even as the fall semester gets underway.

For students, that means we must be understanding of the evolving situation that our professors and administrators are in. Further complicating the picture, many universities have been hit by sharp budget cuts, meaning that staff are being asked to do more with fewer resources. Some faculty will be teaching online courses for the first time, while others will be balancing regular academic commitments with homeschooling their own children. And while the pandemic is not a free pass for faculty to shirk their normal teaching responsibilities, students should keep in mind that professors—like students—are still learning how to navigate the choppy COVID-19 waters.    

Second, taking social-distancing protocols seriously is essential if students care about getting back, or staying, in classrooms. As evident by the recent experience at the University of North Carolina, Notre Dame, Michigan State University, and many others, colleges are willing to rapidly pivot to exclusively online instruction. Those students "lucky" enough to attend colleges offering in-person courses should not take that privilege lightly. Even a small amount of irresponsible behavior can end up ruining a college's plan for in-person instruction.  

Other colleges such as Seton Hall University and the University of Maryland have plans to start in virtual formats and then pivot back to in-person instruction at a later date in the semester. Of course, these delayed-reopening plans assume a successful return to campus in which students, faculty, and staff follow safety and health protocols. If case counts spike after students return to campus, it is likely that delayed-reopening plans will be postponed even further.

Third, the community aspect of college—even if entirely socially distanced—shouldn't be allowed to fall by the wayside. In a typical year, so much of the appeal of college is in the promise of long-lasting relationships and learning that happens outside the classroom walls. But this fall, understandably, even schools offering in-person instruction are seriously modifying or curtailing many of the student programs that facilitate that socialization—from clubs, to on-campus dining, to sports. That means students will need to be creative and work hard to stay in touch with their classmates and remain part of a school community. It might require creating socially-distanced versions of what would otherwise be offered in person—from Zoom Yoga, to a virtual panel event. But whatever it is that winds up being suitable and safe, one thing is clear: it's vital that students remind themselves that school should involve more than a series of lectures.

If there is any such thing as a silver lining for the semester ahead, it's that online courses, while they may be less preferable, are likely a short-term solution. And as the country bounces back from the pandemic, so too will many of the nation's colleges and universities. Our next two blogs will offer some more reasons for optimism, sharing a few thoughts on new financial-aid programs that will help keep college affordability in reach and on why we think higher education is still a promising investment for many of today's students.

— Brendan & Cody

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