Do Education Shortfalls Loom?

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California State University is a system of 23 campuses, over 400,000 students, and 100,000 faculty and staff. This massive higher education entity is fearful of the dangers a second wave of COVID-19 could do to its large, densely-packed community.

Academic officials have already announced that the university will remain largely online in the fall.

New Jersey colleges are also facing uncertainty about reopening their campuses.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Princeton does not expect a decision on their fall plans until early July, but officials have told faculty to assume they will be doing online instruction, as they plan courses for the fall.

McGill University, one of Canada’s most prestigious institutions, is doing the same, assuming the worst while they plan for fall.

Across New Jersey, institutions are building scenarios, trying to project the impact of potential state-imposed restrictions, student attitudes, and their likely level of financial health.

Stockton University expects to make a decision on the fall in mid-July. The College of New Jersey will have a plan in early June. Montclair State is preparing three separate scenarios, while Seton Hall plans a return to campus, with alternative strategies developed in case of a new COVID-19 outbreak.

Rutgers, whose incoming President Jonathan Holloway is a member of Gov. Phil Murphy’s Restart and Recovery Commission, says a “number of scenarios are being actively considered.” These include a return to campus, with minimal adjustments, beginning the fall term in a hybrid fashion or with remote instruction, and planning for a “full remote semester.”

Locally, Atlantic Cape Community College has yet to announce plans for fall. The college will hold a virtual graduation ceremony June 11.

President Barbara Gaba, in a video address available on the institution’s website, expresses a desire to welcome students back to campus when the crisis is over. Yet, she can offer no assurances about fall.

The Chronicle of High Education is tracking what colleges across the country are planning. As of May 18, 68% are expecting they will run in-person instruction programs in the fall. The size of the school, location, and area population density are all variables in their decisions.

For many, the worry is that another term of remote instruction will cost them enrollments they cannot afford to lose. They all are engaged in some form of planning a backup strategy.

Uncertainty is the only certain aspect.

Institutions do not yet know what they will be required to do if they try to reopen their campuses. What level of social distancing will be mandated? Will colleges be responsible for COVID-19 testing? Will tests be available?

Institutions face an uncertain financial position with the confidence only that resources will be tighter and expenses higher. Public institutions have no idea what level of state aid will be available.

Projections by New Jersey officials have the state grappling with a $10 billion shortfall in revenues between this and the next fiscal year. How bad will state cuts be, and when will they be known? The state has extended the current budget year to Sept. 30, meaning firm knowledge of the state’s spending plans will be further delayed.

The colleges and universities also have to factor in uncertainty, in terms of what students will do. Will they sit out the crisis, electing to try and find work in a reopening economy, rather than risk debt from student loans? Will the hybrid or remote learning scenarios so many schools are exploring for fall change the value equation students see regarding college? Is the prospect too costly for too little experience?

Uncertainty also clouds the impact all of this will have on segments of the higher education sector. Some argue that community colleges will see an increase in enrollments, as students elect the cheapest alternative to continue their college education while the health crisis continues. Others argue that New Jersey may not have the funds for continuing the Community College Opportunity Grant Program, costing community colleges the boost in enrollment the program has brought them.

No one knows whose crystal ball is clearest. More importantly, no one can be certain what the virus will do.

Are the drops in new cases and hospitalization a sign that a return to some semblance of normal is in the offing, or are they false positives, signs of a lull before a second wave as the educators at California State fear?

This year’s college graduates are experiencing virtual graduations and uncertain job prospects. This year’s high school graduates may be facing decisions about how to continue their education in a post-secondary-education system fraught with uncertainty.

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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