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What to Expect From the College Experience This Fall

Josh Moody

Changes are coming to campuses this fall.

As the novel coronavirus spread, colleges quickly closed campuses, emptied dorms and moved classes online for the rest of the spring semester. With the fall semester approaching, colleges are preparing for an influx of students while trying to mitigate the pandemic. Uncertainty around what fall may look like abounds, but reporting from the Chronicle of Higher Education indicates that roughly 65% of the more than 1,000 colleges tracked by the publication are planning for an in-person experience. But that in-person experience is likely to come with some modifications and restrictions. Read on to learn more about how the COVID-19 pandemic may shape the college experience this fall.

Orientation may be spread out.

The option of packing rooms full of hundreds of people is out, so expect orientation to look a little different. Instead of three large sessions, for example, colleges may assemble students into 15 groups to comply with social distancing recommendations, says Mayssoun Bydon, founder and managing partner of The Institute for Higher Learning, a test prep and college admissions company. Others are embracing the virtual format and setting up Q&A video sessions; calls between students and faculty advisers using Zoom, a popular videoconferencing tool; online student organization and resource fairs; or recorded sessions that can be watched later.

Traditional academic calendars may be revised.

As the new school year nears, some colleges are rethinking the academic calendar. With fears of the coronavirus continuing to spread, many colleges are adopting a model that starts classes early and ends in-person instruction before Thanksgiving. Students then finish the semester through remote instruction. The rationale behind that plan is that students are more likely to contract and spread the coronavirus when they return home for Thanksgiving. Keeping travel limited is intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

There will likely be an online component.

Some colleges, such as the entire California State University system, have already decided that the fall semester will be online. Likewise, 8% of colleges tracked by the Chronicle of Higher Education are "planning for online" while another 16% are "proposing a hybrid model." While students at some colleges may be attending entirely online, others may see a mix of online and in-person instruction. Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington, said in a May webinar that large classes are likely to be online and smaller classes in person. Even as some classes go remote, Cauce expects colleges to offer lab and performance classes in person.

Face masks may be mandatory.

Colleges will likely follow the lead of state authorities on coronavirus prevention requirements. That means mandatory face masks may vary by state and campus. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on reopening colleges encourages "use of cloth face coverings among students, faculty, and staff." Likewise, "face coverings should be worn as feasible and are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult." This spring, some colleges required students to wear masks on campus when outside of residence halls, a coronavirus prevention practice that is likely to continue at some schools this fall.

Expect physical barriers on campus.

Plastic shields have cropped up in grocery stores and gas stations to protect customers and employees alike. And students should expect to see the same on campus, not only in the dining hall and other service areas but also in classrooms at some schools. Professors at Purdue University--West Lafayette in Indiana, for example, will teach in-person classes behind Plexiglas shields. Speaking in a virtual town hall in late May, Purdue President Mitch Daniels said students shouldn't come to campus this fall if they aren't prepared to sacrifice some convenience to protect the health of others, and he urged reluctant students toward online classes.

Residence halls will also have restrictions.

Colleges are still finalizing plans for residence halls, but early indications suggest that students living on campus will do so under certain restrictions. The University of Virginia is even assigning students specific sinks and showers in communal bathrooms. Virginia Tech will permit only two students to a room. Meanwhile, down the road, Sweet Briar College has announced that it will make a single room available to any student who wants one. Sweet Briar President Meredith Woo sees the rural Virginia location of the campus as a boon to the college community during the pandemic. "We want to make sure that learning takes place at Sweet Briar in the safest possible environment," Woo says.

Grab-and-go dining may replace the buffet.

Virginia Tech plans to install Plexiglas dividers and cashless kiosks, reduce seats in the dining hall and remove all self-service areas. Meal plans will be available with mobile ordering, pickup and grab-and-go options for students living on campus. Given coronavirus prevention efforts, Bydon says, students should expect fewer options in campus dining halls. CDC guidance encourages colleges to offer grab-and-go options and disposable dishes and utensils. Food delivery robots may be another option at some colleges, which made use of such technology in the spring to provide meals to students who remained on closed campuses.

Colleges may be more generous with financial aid.

Students from families financially affected by the coronavirus may warrant more financial aid. "There are going to be many more appeals for an increase in financial aid, especially in the fall," Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research for Savingforcollege.com, told U.S. News in May. With that in mind, students should document any slide in family finances and share it with their college. Experts suggest that financial aid appeals will continue beyond the fall semester as families grapple with the economic issues inflicted by a pandemic that has driven millions to unemployment.

Finding a job may be more difficult.

With facilities under certain restrictions, there may not be a need for certain jobs. If the campus gym is closed, for example, there's no need for a student to run the front desk. Ditto for the lifeguard. Work-study will likely continue, but even that may change. "We think that work-study hours, or responsibilities may be adjusted because finding a job on campus is not going to be as easy or as convenient for some students," Bydon says. Those working off campus may also run into obstacles if they are in a state where restaurants and bars are closed, considering that many service industry jobs are filled by college students.

Coronavirus prevention may be written into codes of conduct.

In addition to requiring masks and testing, there may be other demands of students. Daniels at Purdue says students will be issued masks and a thermometer and must sign a code in which they agree to wear face coverings and quarantine should they show coronavirus symptoms. A key variable is student behavior as schools try to curtail partying and other seemingly normal functions of college life. A recent uptick in COVID-19 cases among students at the University of Colorado--Boulder, some of which were linked to parties in off-campus housing, prompted a rebuke from Chancellor Phil DiStefano: "Noncompliance has serious consequences and places our entire community and our ability to deliver our educational mission at risk."

COVID-19 testing will take on many different forms.

The approach to testing for COVID-19 will likely be as varied as the colleges administering the tests. The University of California--San Diego, for example, in May began offering self-administered nasal swab tests to students living on campus with an eye toward extending the test monthly to all students, faculty and staff beginning in September. The university will also test wastewater leaving residence halls and other facilities on campus. But how each college approaches testing will likely be determined by cost. "We're really seeing a lot of innovation, and great ideas coming out of schools," Bydon says. "Unfortunately, they're not going to be uniformly applied just because every school's endowment is different, and every school's ability to pay for services is different."

College sports may have limited spectators.

When the star player on a college sports team sinks that shot or scores that winning touchdown, it may not be accompanied by the typical roars of jubilation from the devoted fan base. That's because there will likely be a limited audience allowed in stadiums and arenas. The Texas governor, for example, told colleges to not expect more than 50% capacity in football stadiums this fall. Since athletic conferences often span multiple states, capacity will be decided by state and local authorities, NCAA Mid-American Conference Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said in a June webinar on challenges for college athletics. That means capacity may vary widely depending on local COVID-19 restrictions.

Some college sports may not go on as scheduled.

Even if sports spectators are allowed in limited numbers, other complications abound. One that looms large is the health of the players. Outside the normal injuries that come with contact sports, these athletes are also at risk of catching the coronavirus as seen recently when 28 student-athletes and staff at Clemson University in South Carolina tested positive for COVID-19, including 23 football players. Steinbrecher says his conference is still working to set standards for canceled games and postseason requirements. Though colleges are already planning to return to the field, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, recently told CNN that football is unlikely to return this fall unless players are isolated.

Find the school -- or experience -- for you.

Get more information about how to choose a college, and check out the complete rankings of the Best Colleges to find the school that's best for you. For prospective students who are still undecided about heading to college this fall, whether in person or online, learn more about gap years or deferring admission. And connect with U.S. News Education on Twitter and Facebook for more advice and information on selecting a college.

Changes to expect this fall at colleges

-- Orientation may be spread out.

-- Traditional academic calendars may be revised.

-- There will likely be an online component.

-- Face masks may be mandatory.

-- Expect physical barriers on campus.

-- Residence halls will also have restrictions.

-- Grab-and-go dining may replace the buffet.

-- Colleges may be more generous with financial aid.

-- Finding a job may be more difficult.

-- Coronavirus prevention may be written into codes of conduct.

-- COVID-19 testing will take on many different forms.

-- College sports may have limited spectators.

-- Some college sports may not go on as scheduled.

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