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Maryland colleges and universities are making plans to reopen this fall, but will students come back?

Confetti falls at the conclusion of the Loyola University of Maryland online graduation ceremony. The event was held in the Alumni Chapel on the campus. May 16, 2020
Confetti falls at the conclusion of the Loyola University of Maryland online graduation ceremony. The event was held in the Alumni Chapel on the campus. May 16, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Maryland’s colleges and universities are fighting for survival as they try to balance the unknowns of the coronavirus pandemic and the need to reopen their campus buildings so students will decide to return in the fall.

Reopening campus is crucial to the long-term stability of many colleges, school leaders said, because a significant portion of higher education budgets are built on student fees such as tuition and room and board. If students decide campus isn’t safe or that a mix of in-person and online classes isn’t worth full price, higher education leaders worry students could withdraw.

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Local college officials said they will root their decisions in whether they can can keep students and staff safe, even as they acknowledge that remaining closed could be financially devastating. They also say the future of Maryland’s colleges and universities has never seemed so uncertain.

“I think the question of whether and how to reopen in the fall is the top concern of every college and university president in the United States,” said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education. “We are dealing with so many unknowns that it makes planning extraordinarily difficult.”

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Towson University fresmen Jack Felts (left) and Justin Mungo, both of Glen Arm, move out of their dorm in March after it was announced that classes were cancelled as a precautionary measure due to Covid-19 virus.
Towson University fresmen Jack Felts (left) and Justin Mungo, both of Glen Arm, move out of their dorm in March after it was announced that classes were cancelled as a precautionary measure due to Covid-19 virus. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Universities derive a significant amount of their revenue from tuition, room and board, but administrators say they may not learn what percentage of their student body is coming back until mid-summer, when students have to make their first tuition payment.

They also say that planning for a return to campus requires them to consider a complex set of issues, everything from how many students can fit in a classroom, dorm room or dining hall to how often to check temperatures and clean bathrooms.

“I do not know how I sleep at night,” said Rev. Brian F. Linnane, president of Loyola University Maryland.

Linnane is considering lining up alternative dorm space — such as vacant hotel rooms, but wonders if enough students would show up to fill those hotel rooms. He’s also trying to buy 60,000 test kits.

“We all agree that the ability to resume in-person instruction depends on the ability of testing,” he said.

The university has looked at four different scenarios for the future. If the virus has minimal effect on enrollment, he would estimate a $4 million loss, but if it is a significant impact, the loss could be as large as $40 million, he said. Linnane said he’s confident Loyola will outlast the pandemic, but he worries what the university will look like afterward.

“We will come through it,” he said, pinning his hopes on the school receiving federal aid. But, the question will be whether Loyola can afford to maintain “the quality of the academic experiences, and the quality of the infrastructure ... to maintain Loyola’s feel.”

Across the nation, experts are asking whether the coronavirus will upend higher education. Brown University’s President Christina Paxson recently wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times, that the “extent of the crisis in higher education will become evident in September... Remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue. It’s not a question of whether institutions will be forced to permanently close, it’s how many.”

To provide some certainty for their students, some colleges and universities, including Notre Dame of Maryland University and Morgan State University, already have announced their intentions to reopen their campuses, although with many restrictions in place. Others still are weighing the options, and planning for several different scenarios.

Stevenson University sophomore Ruben Amaya will return to his campus next fall if it is safe to do so, but he is worried about what his experience will be.

Confetti falls at the conclusion of the Loyola University of Maryland online graduation ceremony. The event was held in the Alumni Chapel on the campus. May 16, 2020
Confetti falls at the conclusion of the Loyola University of Maryland online graduation ceremony. The event was held in the Alumni Chapel on the campus. May 16, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

“I know that our president said they are planning to have students back in the fall with social distancing. I just wonder how that will be implemented,” said Amaya, ticking off questions about how you bring thousands of students back to campus. “I think it will be a logistical nightmare.”

And if it turns out college will be all remote learning, he and his fellow students will want a break on their tuition, he said, or some will decide to take a year off, work and make money for the following year.

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“The reason most college students pay the tuition is to have the campus experience,” Amaya said.

Goucher College recognizes the issue and is surveying students to ask them if they would return with certain precautions in place, said Jonathan Lindsay, Goucher’s vice president of enrollment management.

Would they come back on campus and live in residence halls? Would they come back and commute? Would they take a year off?

“We have presented two scenarios, one assumes that we open as a residential campus this fall and that we would take hits to our returning student numbers and our incoming class. The second is a worst-case scenario which envisions the college campus closed for another year,” Lindsay said.

If the worst happens, he said, the challenges would be huge because a certain number of students would not come back.

Administrators who chart enrollment and admissions say they are in a wait-and-see period with sometimes conflicting information on whether students will arrive next fall.

A number of institutions, including the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Goucher, have seen the number of students who secured their spot in the freshman class with a deposit increase compared to last year. The deadline was moved from May 1 to June 1 this year to give students more time to decide. Lindsay said he doesn’t put a lot of weight on a $250 deposit and colleges are waiting to see who pays tuition starting in August.

Students, too, are waiting to see whether classes will be in person or online, unwilling to commit giving up the dream of going off to college when that might just mean taking classes online in their parent’s basements.

“It is certainly a nerve-racking time,” said Kara Turner, vice president for enrollment at Morgan State University.

Morgan has tried to help students and their families, she said, by making and announcing decisions as quickly as they were able to make them some degree of confidence.

“I think we have done a great job of privoting to online instruction but that is not what our students want,” Turner said.

The percentage of students who were admitted and have committed to the university is down by about 30% from last year, but she said the number of students who have committed to taking part in summer orientation is up significantly over last year indicating that more students hope to enroll in the fall.

“We know the demand is there," Turner said, "but will they be able to finance their education and are we going to be able to bridge the gap?”

Officials from the University of Maryland, the state’s flagship school, declined to be interviewed or answer questions about the school’s fall enrollment or its future.

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UMBC said it’s seen a 2.5% increase in high school seniors who put down a deposit and commit to the university. Registrations for summer sessions, all online, are also up, and there are 235 more students enrolled in applied master’s degree programs such as computer science and engineering.

Another surprising increase has come from international students in both graduate and undergraduate programs.

“We do see an uptick in international students. In any other year that would be a good thing, but this year this makes us a little nervous,” said Yvette Mozie-Ross, vice provost for enrollment at UMBC.

The fear is that international students would not be able to get visas to come to Maryland.

Mozie-Ross said tuition payments are due August 20, but the university will get a sense of who is coming before that based on enrollment in orientation programs this summer.

The American Council of Education’s Hartle believes college classes will look different in different parts of the country. What happens in Los Angeles may be different than a college in the middle of Iowa, he said. And institutions may try a variety of schedules if there aren’t enough tests or contract tracers available by the time they need to make a decision. Some universities, he said, have considered starting their fall term in winter and their spring session in the summer, essentially shifting the school year back by several months.

Others have suggested half of students come one semester and the other half the next semester. The California State University system, the nation’s largest, will hold all classes online this fall.

“This is unprecedented in living memory and there is simply no way for people to predict what is going to happen,” Hartle said. “If you are a college president in the United States, you better have a tolerance for ambiguity because that is all you can be sure of.”

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