Home Current Events The Walls Are Crumbling: Will Colleges Reopen This Fall?
The Walls Are Crumbling: Will Colleges Reopen This Fall?

The Walls Are Crumbling: Will Colleges Reopen This Fall?


With cases of the coronavirus on the rise around the U.S., colleges leaders that made the early call to go online for the fall appear more prescient every day as we get closer to the anticipated start date. While the safety of students, faculty, and staff has to be at the forefront of any decision to return to campus, there are some who have asked if the decision to return has been driven primarily by financial considerations.

The recent publication of a College Pulse/Charles Koch Foundation survey of 5,000 college students entitled COVID-19 On Campus: The Future of Learning indicates that many students and their families believe that an online experience should not cost the same as a face-to-face classroom and campus experience.

More than 6 in 10 (63% actual) students responded that students should pay “much less” tuition if only online learning options are available, and 3 in 10 (30% actual) believe that they should pay a “little less” if only online learning options are available. More than half (54%) of students believe that faculty at their school did not handle the transition well. Only 21% of students say that incorporating more online learning tools and courses should be one of the highest priorities for their school.

Despite the fact that many college presidents have stated classes will resume on campus this fall, the students may be more realistic. Over 70% of the students believe that classes will be primarily online this fall, with 18% selecting “very likely” and 53% selecting “somewhat likely.”

Author and former Chronicle of Higher Education Editor in Chief Jeff Selingo asked in an unscientific poll conducted recently among his LinkedIn followers, “Should colleges focus this summer on getting students back on campus for the fall or on improving online learning for the fall?”

He writes in his blog that only 14% of the 996 respondents voted to focus on returning students to campus. The remaining respondents were fairly evenly split between “improving online learning” (40%) and “hybrid approach” (45%). Mr. Selingo further clarified that hybrid to most colleges and universities means folding online classes on top of the campus experience.

Williams College, the wealthiest liberal arts college in the U.S. with a nearly $3.0 billion endowment, announced yesterday that it was cutting its tuition this fall by 15% due to the reduced student experience. Williams has also cancelled all sports scheduled for the fall, and students have the option of returning to campus for classes or taking classes online from home this fall. Covering the Williams College announcement in Inside Higher Education, economist Dr. Lucie Lapovsky stated that “students at other schools can use this as a pressure point to say we should reduce what we’re paying because we’re not getting the same experience.”

Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, posted an informative article about auxiliary revenue source dependency at private colleges on his blog in June. He downloaded data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to calculate the distribution of revenue at colleges that reported auxiliary revenue in FY18.

According to his analysis, most colleges with on-campus housing received between 10-25% of their revenue from auxiliary sources. Combine a loss of auxiliary revenue with a demand from students to cut tuition because of the lack of a campus experience, and the small private colleges that are dependent on tuition revenues are in trouble financially.

On his July 1 Twitter feed, Dr. Kelchen tweeted that higher ed made it through June with only two college closures announced, but that July will not be so fortunate if small, residential non-wealthy private colleges can’t bring students to campus in August.

Regardless of the number of active COVID-19 cases in August, there will be more campuses that announce a return to online education for the fall, because they believe they will be unable to curb the spread if traditional classrooms are used. Additionally, there will be campuses that move to online if their students return and the number of students, faculty, and staff infected with the coronavirus increase.

I’m aligned with those who believe more classes in the fall will be online. The bigger question will be how many campuses will remain open even if classes are online? Will that trigger a reluctance for students to return to campus, increased requests for tuition refunds, or both?

Time will tell but the signs are obvious – this fall will be the most financially stressing year for higher education in a long while.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who will remain APUS president until his planned retirement in June 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni. In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. Dr. Boston lives in Owings Mills, MD with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.


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