In late July academia changed its mind about the fall term

I wonder if this past week was when American higher education made its major move in the direction of online education for fall term.

I don’t mean that 100% of colleges and universities are now wholly virtual. Instead, I mean that after months when the plurality aimed for an in-person fall, a key number of institutions changed up. They either issued a first decision to go mostly or entirely online, or else revised a previous in-person policy for the fall semester. Put another way, the balance of positions, which was once tilted towards face-to-face education and various hybrids, seems to be tipping towards online and various hybrid forms.

One sign of what I’m talking about comes from what the Chronicle of Higher Education tracker is now showing. It’s been running for months, but they’ve revised it over the past week or so. Here’s what it displayed back on June 19th:*

You can see a majority of institutions, about 2/3rds, calling for an in-person fall term, while only a sliver, 8%, were committed to online.

About a month later, July 14th, things were fairly similar, although hybrid was growing:

Contrast that with what the tracker displayed this past Friday:

Now only 23.5% of higher ed is planning on being entirely or mostly in person this fall. That’s not even one quarter of the system. A big fall from two-thirds. At the same time, many more colleges and universities (27.8%) are wholly or mostly online now. In fact, more seem to be online than in-person.

At the same time around about that number (27%) are undecided. That is a lot of campuses without an official plan for the term… which starts in a few weeks. Meanwhile, 16% are “hybrid.” It’s not clear exactly what that means. Perhaps it’s the population settling to around half online, half in person?

Now, I don’t want to read too much into one publication. The Chronicle changed up their metrics somewhat. But the shift away from in-person is clear. In short, something big happened in late July.

Further on down the Chronicle’s tracker page we find fall plans mapped out spatially. The geography of fall decisions is fascinating:

Different fall modes are everywhere. There are way too many schools planning on in-person education in Florida and Texas.

A related project, from which the Chronicle draws, is Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative (C2i). This offers a similar dashboard of fall plans:

By my count, they offer a similar reading as the Chronicle:

Again, we’re down to less than one quarter of academia now committed to in-person education.

How does this reality, if I’ve understood it correctly, map onto our forecasts?

Back in April I offered 3 scenarios for the fall:

  1. The Post-Pandemic Campus (in person)
  2. COVID Fall (online)
  3. Toggle Term (switching between 1+2 in mid-academic year)

1+2 are clearly in play. A version of 3 is happening now, rather than during classes, as some schools change up their plans. Call it Early Toggle.

Now, many in our crowdsourcing experiment leaned towards late summer for campuses to flip the Toggle. They clearly saw reality pretty well.

Robert Kelchen memorably anticipated this shift happening a bit earlier:

So some of us were ahead of the curve.

Now, what’s driving this July shift?

Clearly the rising US COVID-19 infection rate is key. You can see the daunting tolls in the latest stats from the CDC:

Here’s the 91-DIVOC visualization of national case rates over time:

The US took and maintained a global lead in viral spread, with a second surge going on now. Note the other countries rising, notably Brazil and especially India — from which America draws the second highest number of international students after China.

Besides infections, American deaths by COVID are also rising, albeit in a lagging position:

Within the United States, the condition of separate states matters a great deal. Think, for instance, of campuses located in those states with the highest infection rates, Florida, California, Texas:

And, similarly, colleges and universities in those states with the highest death rates:

Should a campus not in those most afflicted states refuse to welcome back student from them? Doug Belkin and Melissa Korn report on one school’s strategy:

We can cut the data even more finely and think about infection rates by US county, as per the New York Times:

How many students are drawn from those yellow to red counties? In short, the current epidemic situation must be counted as a leading drive for this July change.

Stories of rapid infection in areas adjacent to academia might have played some role. I was struck by the Indiana school district story, where a junior high school opened and experienced its first infection within hours. Others have noted the fast transmission of the virus through a Georgia summer camp population this past June. Not all higher ed students are teenagers, as my readers know, but enough are to inspire some campus decision-makers.

We should add to our understanding academia’s well known tendency towards herd behavior. Institutions scan each other for behavior to adopt. Following this line of thought, we should expect the 27% undecided colleges and universities to follow the rest, with a quarter of them opting for in person, and the rest split between online and hybrid.

In short, late July looks like it was a decisive moment for how American higher education responded to the coronavirus crisis. It may represent the second most powerful swarm of institutional decision-making about the pandemic this year, after the rush online in March.

(thanks to Derek Balsley and my wife Ceredwyn for pandemic links; cross-posted to my blog)

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.