US colleges push back spring term start in bid to outlast Covid

Later start offers chance at warmer conditions and more vaccinations, say leaders

December 14, 2020
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Several US colleges are pushing back the start of their spring semesters, hoping that warmer weather and the roll-out of vaccines will help them finally staunch the heavy educational and financial toll of the pandemic.

Whether planned weeks ago or yet to be acknowledged, numerous spring delays and last-minute shifts appeared likely, said one expert, Christopher Marsicano, an assistant professor of the practice of higher education at Davidson College.

Those taking the leap include Bates College, an elite private liberal arts college in Maine, which has asked its 2,000 students to return in mid-February, about five weeks later than usual.

“I very much hope that the worst will soon be behind us,” the president of Bates, Clayton Spencer, told her campus community in announcing the move. “When we reconvene in February, the winter and spring will be a journey toward warmth and light.”

Yale University, by contrast, announced back in October that it would postpone its spring arrivals by two weeks. Even then, Yale officials said, they could see that the winter flu season needed to be avoided as much as possible.

Fast-rising infection rates across the US are now adding to that realisation, said Dr Marsicano, the founding director of the College Crisis Initiative, which studies higher education’s response to the pandemic.

“With cases being the worst they have ever been, I wouldn’t count on those institutions that have said they will be in person to actually start on time,” he said.

Several vaccines that could end the pandemic are racing towards regulatory approval in the US and beyond, but estimates vary of how soon they will be distributed and produce widespread public benefit.

US colleges may also soon receive help from Congress, which has been showing signs of a breakthrough on a long-stalled $900 billion (£700 billion) nationwide economic relief bill containing provisions to benefit both institutions and student borrowers.

Yet there’s new data reminding colleges of the seriousness of their situation. One report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed a 22 per cent decline this autumn in the number of US high school graduates who went straight to college. That’s even worse than the 16 per cent drop in overall college freshmen enrolment this autumn that the Clearinghouse previously tallied.

Moody’s Investors Service, in its annual projection, said that it expected a decline in overall higher education revenue over the next year of between 5 per cent and 10 per cent. That follows US colleges and universities estimating they’ve already suffered some $120 billion in new expenses and lost revenue from the pandemic.

One possible upside, said Michael Osborn, a Moody’s analyst and lead author on the report, is that the post-pandemic rebound for US higher education – once it arrives – could be substantial.

“I think what we’re going to see with this is a severe revenue loss with potentially a sharp recovery,” Mr Osborn said. “There is a real chance that by next fall, we’re back to normal, but we just don’t know yet.”

Bowdoin College, another liberal arts institution in Maine, previously announced a two-week delay in its spring semester – while warning its students to be ready for further adjustments.

“We know we are in this until a widely distributed vaccine is available,” the college’s president, Clayton Rose, told his community.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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