- The California State University system intends to offer most classes in-person next fall. It's likely the first institution to announce its plans.
- Chancellor Timothy White cited "promising progress" with coronavirus vaccines and a desire to provide students and families "as much advance notice as possible" in an announcement this week. He also pointed to the system's extended priority application deadline of Dec. 15.
- The 23-campus system was among the first higher education entities to announce fall 2020 and spring 2021 plans, in both cases opting to be primarily online.
Cal State officials said the cost and logistical challenge of testing its 480,000-plus students for the coronavirus were among the reasons why most of its classes were online this fall.
They were also heeding the advice of health experts, who cautioned that the pandemic would worsen during the fall and winter. (Cal State was named Higher Ed Dive's College of the Year for 2020 in part because of its early decision.)
The U.S. now appears close to approving a coronavirus vaccine, which could be widely available as early as spring 2021. Still, the virus is taking its toll here. The average number of new recorded cases per week is climbing, and more than 3,000 people died from the virus the day of Cal State's announcement.
System officials hedged slightly, however, noting in a press release that they are optimistic the 2021-22 academic year can happen "much more in person."
Enrollment grew at more than half of Cal State's campuses this fall, EdSource reported, countering declines projected for the sector. White, who is retiring at the end of the year, told the publication that he thinks the early decision helped those numbers by providing "certainty" in uncertain times.
Classes were all or mostly online this fall at just under half of the nearly 3,000 colleges tracked by the College Crisis Initiative, which is following institutions' responses to the pandemic. Additionally, 622 schools used a hybrid format.
But it's early days for fall 2021 news, said Chris Marsicano, the initiative's director, who noted that the spring term at many schools doesn't start for at least a month. Plans were in flux the month before the fall term began. "People should be taking these announcements with a grain of salt,” Marsicano said.
Kevin McClure, a higher education professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, expects systems will be more likely to make announcements early because of the logistical challenges of planning across institutions.
Some schools are still deciding how to offer classes after winter break. Cal State said in September that its spring term would be mostly online, with flexibility for campuses to offer in-person coursework based on local conditions.
Other institutions are allowing more students to live and take classes on campus this spring. Some have also increased their coronavirus testing capacity. But observers are concerned colleges, on the whole, aren't ready for more in-person activity.
Around 60% of colleges plan to have some or all students on campus in 2021, according to C2i estimates reported by Politico.
The steep revenue losses colleges are experiencing this year are expected to make getting students back on campus a priority, however. Without more federal support for the sector, cuts will likely deepen at schools that can't do so, McClure said.