It’s no secret that COVID-19 has forced many educational institutions to rapidly reconsider whether to inaugurate a new normal. Commonplace practices that characterized the college and university experience, such as face-to-face instruction, dormitory living, and group gatherings instantaneously became taboo as thousands of students across the country were forced to vacate campuses beginning in late February. The conclusion of the spring semester was merely a limp across the finish line for students and professors alike, but the story didn’t and doesn’t conclude there.

The lack of clear and concise medical guidance regarding COVID-19 and the haze around the potential “second wave” has spawned considerable fear of autumnal viral resurgence. As physical campuses serve as opportune breeding grounds for infection, the question is then raised – what will higher education look like going forward into the fall and beyond?

Responses to viral fears have presented themselves by way of plans for a continuation of online instruction through the utilization of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, in-person instruction with class sizes capped at small numbers, as well as a hybrid of the two aforementioned options. However, almost nothing at this point across the country is set in stone. Decisions have been made, reversed, and undone by many administrations, suggesting that schools are toying with options and waiting until the last possible moment to make an official decision.

The lack of fall term guidance has created more questions than there are answers available for many students seeking just a shred of clarity about what their lives might be like in a little over a month. The mass confusion and anxiety extend itself to topics such as tuition and fees, living arrangements, the effectiveness of online learning, and the outlook of the signature college experience. 

Regardless of the decision made by any given college administration, the college landscape will not be identical to what it was back only a year ago in the fall of 2019. This grim expectation places both students and parents in a rather difficult position when forced to consider the fact that the product of “college” has changed considerably, whether that be a move to total online education, or a college-lite experience with small classes and limited access to state-of-the-art programs, facilities, and benefits of campus life. For many students, including myself, fall tuition and fee bills have not yet been finalized and invoiced. It’s in good faith that students and families wait for the iteration of fall plans before making the hefty investment in the student’s future.

To drill down further with the knowledge that the college product per se will change, unless colleges make the deal for fall tuition incredibly attractive, it’s fully possible students and families will withhold their money for a laundry list of reasons. With the average annual cost of college in the United States sitting at a staggering $21,950 for an in-state public institution and $38,330 for an out of state institution (EducationData) – very few, if any, would be willing to pay full price for what may be coming down the pike, especially concerning online education becoming an increasingly viable alternative to sitting in a physical classroom.

Before the pandemic, many American colleges and universities never fully embraced or encouraged online education. It was merely implemented as a supplement for large general-ed classes, such as entry-level English or algebra, as collecting hundreds of digital assignment submissions proves far easier than the manual alternative. With the leaps and bounds made by technology and even the current landscape with COVID-19, it’s understandable that universities don’t want to be seen as limiting access to education, so they have quickly begun to focus on online education supplementation by building out programs like Canvas and Moodle. But to fully embrace the scope of online education might render a proportion of the faculty redundant.

For good reason, educators and students alike have been skeptical and even critical of online learning as compared to the physical, in-person alternative. Questions regarding the feasibility of labs and discussion-oriented courses (such as that of a foreign language), which require more intimate settings, have surfaced and many still go unanswered.

To curb the questions and doubts over online education, institutions simply need to build and market “parallel” online degrees for all their degree programs and not just individual classes. By doing so, universities could capitalize on the immediate technological landscape and grow their reach by hundreds if not thousands, as well as protect the best interests of students in the meantime during the pandemic. It’s also important to consider the economic undertones of the sentiment. If colleges begin to emphasize online education as a potential alternative to the physical classroom, the cost of a college education will decrease substantially due to the disappearance of activity fees, university housing, and meal plans on the shopping sheet. Students would be billed for tuition and tuition alone. This move poses a threat to the life of the physical campus and potentially takes millions of dollars out of university budgets.

Sadly it’s still too early to know what the fall semester holds for many students across the country – many still await the decision as to whether or not their courses will be entirely digital. The ball is in the court of university administrations, who are tasked with a mighty consideration of the best way to blend the fall semester with an appropriate path forward in the years ahead. It’s clear the future is moving in a digital direction and that was only advanced by the pandemic. The question of “to what extent?” remains.

Tyler Glatt is a student at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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