A few weeks after the coronavirus was detected on American soil, one small liberal arts college in rural Appalachia made the call to cancel in-person instruction and ask students to leave campus.
But rather than continue classes online, as many other colleges were doing, officials at Berea College, in Kentucky, said they would find other ways for students to wind down the semester. In the announcement, Berea President Lyle Roelofs said the decision was in part to acknowledge that students wouldn't all have internet access when they returned home.
One Berea instructor took to Twitter to push back on criticism that the college should have transitioned to online instruction. "Those people don't seem to understand that not everyone has the same amenities as them," wrote Silas House, assistant professor of Appalachian studies. "A lot of students don't have WiFi access."
Although most institutions enroll some students who have limited or no access to technology and the internet away from campus, rural colleges may grapple with the issue more often due to their remote locations. It's just one of the ongoing challenges these schools face.
Though not homogenous, many rural colleges are known for having tight-knit communities and hands-on programs — two factors that can make it hard or even impossible to transition online. For some schools, this process is complicated further by tight budgets or high shares of low-income students, said Beth Rushing, president of the Appalachian College Association, in an interview with Education Dive.
"They are not rich schools," she said of her association's 35 member colleges, many of which are in rural regions. "And they're serving students who aren't rich."
Trouble with the shift online
The U.S. had more than 50,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, as of Tuesday afternoon, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University. As it spreads, more colleges are expected to shut down their campuses and finish out the academic year remotely.
For the dozens of liberal arts institutions scattered across the Appalachian region, Rushing said, some students' lack of access to high-speed internet and computers is a barrier to moving classes online.
This issue is widespread in higher education. For example, a survey of nearly 750 U.S. college students found about one-fifth had difficulty consistently accessing technology because of issues such as broken hardware, data limits and connectivity problems.
In another survey, only about 80% of the 10,000 community college students polled said they had reliable access to the internet or a computer.
Those issues can be exacerbated at rural institutions, especially as studies show that students tend to attend college close to home.
Joe Schaffer, president of Laramie County Community College, in Wyoming, voiced similar concerns about his institution's transition to remote learning. "When (students) go back to small towns, the communities are in areas that simply don't have the broadband connectivity and the technology infrastructure to support our shift to online learning," he told Education Dive.
Laramie is pointing students to several internet service providers that are offering short-term access to those in need.
Other rural colleges moving to online instruction are letting students stay on campus if they wouldn't be able to continue learning from another location. And some, such as Davidson College, in North Carolina, are loaning computers and wireless hot spots to students, though the institution notes on its website that it has a limited supply of each.
"When (students) go back to small towns, the communities are in areas that simply don't have the broadband connectivity and the technology infrastructure to support our shift to online learning."
President, Laramie County Community College
Potential pitfalls extend beyond online learning. Some rural colleges specialize in hands-on programs — such as agriculture and manufacturing — that can be difficult to teach remotely. In those cases, instructors have had to get creative.
One cosmetology instructor at Lamar Community College, in Colorado, had students take their kits and mannequin heads home with them so they can follow along with online lessons, Linda Lujan, the institution's president, told Education Dive in an interview.
Getting other courses online has been trickier.
Lamar's horse training and management program requires students to train a two-year-old colt. In that case, its faculty accelerated instruction so students could finish early.
The pandemic has forced colleges to reframe the goals of instruction this semester. "This is not the time to try to design the best online class possible," Lujan said. Instead, she added, colleges should focus on how they can best help students finish their programs.
A threat to rural colleges' 'very existence'
The coronavirus pandemic could have devastating long-term consequences for many colleges, especially cash-strapped rural institutions, observers told Education Dive.
Amid the outbreak, Moody's Investors Service downgraded its outlook for the higher education sector from stable to negative. Its analysts predict the outbreak will immediately squeeze colleges' budgets as they transition online and cause "unprecedented enrollment uncertainty."
The latter issue could spell trouble for some smaller colleges in rural areas that have been battling enrollment declines, said Colin Koproske, managing director of research development at consultancy EAB. "They're already struggling," he said. "If they miss a class by 10 students or 20 students — that's a big deal."
Refunds for tuition or room and board fees — critical sources of revenue for institutions — could also deal a blow to their budgets.
"If you have 50 fewer students come back because of the coronavirus or take their money elsewhere because you don't have enough online courses built out yourself — that's threatening to their very existence."
Managing director of research development, EAB
Laramie's Schaffer said that's the case for his institution, which is losing out on roughly $500,000 in revenue this semester because it is refunding students who were living in its dorms.
"$500,000 may not sound like a lot," Schaffer said. "For a small community college in rural America, it's significant."
Wyoming's governor issued an order last week requiring colleges to move classes online. Schaffer is confident that action will help the institution recoup its losses through its insurance.
Yet few colleges have budgeted for these types of losses, making them difficult to overcome, Koproske said.
"If you have to issue a refund, if you miss a summer session, if you have 50 fewer students come back because of the coronavirus or take their money elsewhere because you don't have enough online courses built out yourself — that's threatening to their very existence," Koproske added.
The American Council on Education led several other higher education associations to urge the federal government to give the sector additional funding and regulatory flexibility as they respond to the pandemic.
However, Koproske pointed out that one "ironic silver lining" for colleges could be a recession, which several prominent economists say is already underway. Typically, enrollment rises during tough economic times and droops when the job market is strong.
But some rural college leaders worry this downturn will imperil their communities, many of which have already endured years of economic decline. "What's that going to look like once this is all over?" Lamar's Lujan asked. "Are there going to be jobs? And what are we going to be training for?"