Students are weary of online classes. But colleges can’t say if they’ll open in fall 2020.

College students say they’ll revolt if universities put another semester of classes online to avoid spreading the coronavirus – but that’s increasingly what campus leaders are considering doing.

For Ryan Sessoms, a marketing student at the University of North Florida, the transition to online classes has already been rocky. The thought of paying the same amount of tuition for another semester of lackluster classes is a non-starter. It’s harder to find the motivation to complete his assignments, he said, when not surrounded by his peers. 

“Fall is my last semester as well,” said Sessoms, 24. “All my hard work I have put in, I’d prefer to walk across the stage and wrap up some last-minute connections on campus as well. 

“If it’s going to be online at the same tuition price, then I’ll just wait for the spring semester.”

Grayce Marquis, a 20-year-old student at the University of Pittsburgh, told USA TODAY she was joking when she tweeted about skipping the fall semester after the college’s chancellor raised the possibility of putting fall classes online. Still, she said, another semester of online learning would be heartbreaking for her. 

The college experience so far, she said, has been fantastic, and that’s due to her friends, professors, sports and extracurricular activities on campus. Going online has stripped that away, she said, and her days are now defined by her individual effort. 

“Perhaps I am still learning and fulfilling my areas of study,” she said. “But every part of what I love about college has been taken away.”

She said the university could make life easier on students by discounting tuition or increasing scholarships.

The problem: Many colleges are in financial crisis. They need students, with their tuition and housing payments, as much as students need them.

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The reality, though, is no one knows right now what the fall semester will look like, said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president for the American Council for Education, a national trade group of universities. 

“The coronavirus will determine when colleges and universities can reopen,” he said. “All colleges and universities want to open normally, but no college knows if it can.” 

That’s bad news for universities. As the economic impact of the coronavirus continues mostly unabated, many already have canceled their summer classes and other activities, like alumni gatherings or camps that also generate revenue. 

Reiter's Books, in the middle of George Washington University's downtown campus in Washington, D.C., sits empty at lunchtime on March 12. Students were moving out of campus housing to head home to weather the coronavirus pandemic.

They’re scrambling to make up for lost money. The University of Cincinnati ended its men’s soccer program and St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, announced this week it was cutting men’s and women’s golf and tennis, along with men’s soccer. 

On Friday, the University of Arizona announced it would furlough employees and may lay some off in the future. The chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System is recommending the closure of three whole campuses. 

The financial trouble started when colleges started issuing refunds for housing costs, after sending students home and buying licenses and equipment to put courses online.  Some students also are demanding refunds for tuition. 

If social distancing requires colleges to keep students at home for another semester, the fallout could completely remake America’s higher education system, upending everything from students’ degree attainment to the economies of college towns.

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What does fall hold? No one can know

News of universities suggesting another online semester has spread rapidly and, at times, incorrectly. Boston University was one of the first institutions to announce that in the “unlikely event” its students couldn’t return to campus due to health concerns, in-person instruction would resume in 2021. Many interpreted that as a declaration that the fall semester would not be happening. (The university has since added a note to its announcement clarifying its statement.) 

Universities around the country are having the same conversation, including Harvard, the University of Arizona, the University of South Carolina, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of California at San Diego, to name a few. But the truth is few colleges have definitive plans right now.

In a survey of college officials last week, a little more than half of 210 respondents said their colleges are talking about the possibility of putting the fall semester entirely online, according to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.  A slimmer 5% of colleges have already committed to online classes for the fall semester.

The fall semester may seem far out, but for higher education, it’s basically here, said Wendy Kilgore, director of research at the association. In many cases, the fall class schedule has already been built, and universities are opening class registration. 

“They have to have the plans in place for course delivery,” she said. “That’s why these deliberations are happening right now.” 

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Even if colleges don’t go completely online, they could choose a solution that embraces more online learning. In the survey, two-thirds of colleges were considering offering more online courses compared with the previous fall semester, while 57% were talking about reducing the number of in-person courses for the same time frame. 

A handful of colleges were also considering delaying the start of the fall semester or shortening it. 

Utah State University’s president told students and employees future classes might be smaller and that she expected “people will come back on campus but not in large, free-moving ways that we used to have,” according to The Herald Journal. 

Dramatic changes are already in place at Beloit College in Wisconsin. The semester will start later than normal, and students will not take a traditional four-course semester, said Eric Boynton, provost and dean of the college.

Instead, the semester will be split in half, with students taking two more-intensive courses in the first seven weeks, and two more after that.

Beloit College in Wisconsin

The goal, Boynton said, was to minimize disruption should the college need to pivot to online learning again suddenly. For example, the threat of the virus might make in-person classes impossible for the first set of courses that start in September, but by late October, the start of the second session, the safety concerns might have abated. Additionally, if the college has to pivot to online learning, only two of a student’s classes would be affected at any given time, rather than four. 

“What we wanted was some kind of decisive step,” he said. “What we wanted was some kind of ability to call something certain in the midst of this uncertainty.” 

The altered semester is just one part of Beloit’s plan. The college also is locking the price of tuition for current students, lowering the cost of tuition for students from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and starting a two-year long mentoring program for new students.

Not all colleges will be able to follow Beloit’s model, though. It’s a smaller institution that can move more quickly than larger institutions.

Small colleges were already on the brink:Now, coronavirus threatens the existence of many

Even with hybrid solutions, some colleges may have to fight to survive, said Hartle, the vice president with the American Council for Education.

The most at-risk: those that were already struggling financially before the disruptions of the coronavirus. Some private liberal arts colleges and regional universities that had declining enrollment and budget shortfalls may experience especially steep challenges. And in some parts of the country, the population of traditional college-age students is declining. 

Higher education has received some help from the federal government. As part of the CARES Act stimulus, colleges received $14 billion. Roughly $6.3 billion must go to students, but Hartle said he hopes Congress will consider providing more aid to higher education. After all, he said, the field employs 4 million people.

Another wildcard: During a recession, colleges often see an increase in enrollment. In the fall of 2009, college enrollment climbed by 1 million students, he said. But it’s unclear if that would be the case now if colleges can’t operate as they normally have. Will families be nervous about students attending universities far from home? Or will some students take a gap year while waiting for the threat of the virus to wither?

“There’s simply no precedent for this,” Hartle said. 

Still, some students are trying to find a bright side to online classes. Hannah Druss, a 19-year-old student at Binghamton University, said she is eating healthier and sleeping more.

And it’s nice, she said, being able to complete her coursework while staying indoors. Reaching professors, though, can be challenging, and coordinating group work proves challenging given that everyone is juggling different life circumstances right now. 

What’s giving her the most anxiety, though, is the lack of clarity for what the fall semester will bring. Online or in person, she just wants answers. 

“I would rather be told sooner rather than later,” she said. “I would prefer it to be in person, but only if it’s safe to do so, which is highly unlikely.”

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Contributing: Ethan Bakuli of The Burlington Free Press in Vermont, Steve Berkowitz of USA TODAY, Rachel Leingang of The Arizona Republic, Dave Clark of The Cincinnati Enquirer and Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman. 

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.

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