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US Colleges Struggle to Balance COVID-19 With Classes

FILE - Masked students cross an intersection on the campus of Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., Sept. 10, 2020.
FILE - Masked students cross an intersection on the campus of Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., Sept. 10, 2020.

Colleges and universities are seeing an increase of cases of COVID-19 as students return to campus, with some seeing rapid increases while others are keeping a lid on the spread of disease.

Four sources are compiling information about colleges and COVID-19, including case-tracking maps: The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative (C2i), and Inside Higher Education.

So far, there is no unified national coordinated plan from higher education on how to handle the spread of the coronavirus on university campuses across the United States, say experts, including Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), and Frederick M. Lawrence, former president of Brandeis University and CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, in separate interviews with VOA.

Tracking COVID-19

In early August, before the fall semester started at many schools, nearly half (48%) of more than 1,275 colleges and universities planned for an in-person semester, while 35% proposed a hybrid model and 14% online, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which has been tracking colleges since spring 2020.

But as of October 1, only 4% of nearly 3,000 institutions were “fully in person” for the fall semester, 23% reported a “primarily in person” teaching situation, and 21% offered a hybrid of in-person and online courses for students. Thirty-four percent were “primarily online” with 10% fully online. Eight percent remained undecided or “other,” according to data from the Chronicle and Davidson.

Some of those closures came after students returned to campus or nearby, and COVID-19 cases spiked. James Madison University in Virginia halted in-person classes completely, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison saw an increase in cases that forced the school to enter a two-week lockdown.

State University of New York-Cortland, with 6,800 students, converted to all online classes October 6 after a spike in cases. At SUNY-Oneonta, nearly 700 students tested positive for COVID-19, and the university moved to online-only classes for the rest of the semester. SUNY-Oswego returned to in-person learning on October 5 after a two-week closure begun when more than 100 cases were confirmed on campus.

FILE - A woman wears a mask as she walks on campus at San Diego State University, Sept. 2, 2020, in San Diego.
FILE - A woman wears a mask as she walks on campus at San Diego State University, Sept. 2, 2020, in San Diego.

Most U.S. colleges and universities are not conducting widespread coronavirus tests despite the rise of cases on campuses, according to an NPR analysis.

Data of more than 1,400 colleges compiled by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson and analyzed by NPR show that more than 2 in 3 colleges with in-person classes have no testing plan or are doing limited testing for only students at risk.

Universities with high numbers of COVID-19 cases and “no clear plan” include Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (29,300 undergraduate students enrolled), Troy University (12,995 undergraduate students enrolled) and Southeast Missouri State University (9,524 undergraduate students enrolled).

The University of Alabama has the highest average number of daily cases with 82.6 per 100,000 in the county containing the college. The university is conducting random surveillance testing, according to its website.

Student reactions

Despite measures to keep schools safe, many students and staff raised concerns before campuses reopened.

“So you’re telling me that we can't control the spread of covid between 42 people on campus during orientation, but we’re going to bring 20,000+ students to that same space in 3 weeks?? I want to be back @MissouriState. But we need more than a vague plan to get us there,” tweeted Jasmine Crawford from Missouri State University.

“Friday night in State College, PA. @GovernorTomWolf we need another lockdown. @pennstate you may be able to enforce social distancing on campus, but students in State College = students in bars. Take that into account,” tweeted Sage McKeand, an undergraduate student at Penn State University.

In June, more than half of 7,234 Purdue University faculty and staff reported they “felt unsafe about returning to campus for a fall semester with in-person classes,” according to The Indianapolis Star.

Over 90% said they were “not confident students would ‘socially distance appropriately outside the classroom (e.g., on weekends, at bars and parties).’ ”

FILE - College students wear masks out of concern for the coronavirus on the Boston College campus, Sept. 17, 2020, in Boston.
FILE - College students wear masks out of concern for the coronavirus on the Boston College campus, Sept. 17, 2020, in Boston.

Sherry Pagoto, a clinical psychologist at the University of Connecticut, surveyed college students about returning to campus in July, and found that the students that responded to their survey agreed that the required 14-day quarantine before the semester started was “not realistic” and “will likely fail.”

Pagoto and research assistant Laurie Groshon interviewed seven focus groups of four to seven students each.

Students said they were “pessimistic” about wearing masks during social events, although they said it would depend on the “social norms” of groups and stated they were unsure about how to hold one another accountable.

Students also stated that the threshold for closing campuses should be “based on several weeks of increasing cases on campus and should not wait until someone dies.”

The status quo

The University of Alabama (UA) and the University of Georgia (UGA) have the most cases, according to a New York Times case tracker. As of September 25, 2,690 confirmed cases had been reported at UA and 3,532 confirmed cases had been reported at UGA.

Some students say their universities have not been careful with containing cases.

At UGA, Max Appelbaum, a fourth-year atmospheric sciences major from Trion, Georgia, lives in off-campus housing with two roommates. He is taking two online classes and two in-person classes.

Appelbaum said in a message to VOA that he was “disgusted” and that it was “incredibly irresponsible to come back to campus at all.”

“Basically, the administration isn't listening to its own researchers who are studying coronavirus and are telling them that their plan is inadequate and that it was not safe to reopen campus,” he messaged VOA.

Greg Trevor, executive director for marketing and communications at UGA, disagreed.

Trevor said the university consulted many health experts before deciding to resume in-person classes. The health experts included a medical oversight task force, composed of the dean of the College of Public Health, the executive director of the University Health Center and the campus dean of the Augusta University/UGA Medical Partnership.

"From the outset of the pandemic, the University of Georgia’s primary commitment has been to the health and safety of our faculty, staff and students. We worked diligently — with the engagement of faculty health and medical experts — to prepare our campus for the resumption of in-person instruction this fall in a manner consistent with federal and state health and safety guidelines,” he wrote in an email to VOA.

FILE - A graduate assistant sits in an empty auditorium during an online lecture on the first day of classes, Aug. 17, 2020, at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
FILE - A graduate assistant sits in an empty auditorium during an online lecture on the first day of classes, Aug. 17, 2020, at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

Other large universities have had a relatively small number of coronavirus cases.

California State University-Fullerton (CSUF) has had three cases among its 35,169 undergraduate students.

CSUF laid out a six-step plan for readmitting students to campus and ensuring the safety of faculty and students. The plan is now in its third phase, according to its coronavirus website.

“For those who will be on campus in the fall, it will be each person’s responsibility to adhere to all safety protocols to reduce the risk of infection among our campus community members and their families. This includes using face masks, practicing good hygiene and maintaining social distance,” it wrote.

If anyone is exposed or comes in contact with someone exposed, this person “must remain off campus, self-quarantine, and follow all applicable public health orders,” it continued.

Crucial practices

The University of Wisconsin-Superior has had only one case of coronavirus out of its 2,259 undergraduate students and, according to Jordan Milan, director of strategic communications and special assistant to the chancellor, this case was not linked to the 54% of classes that are on campus.

“We recognize that the success of this model is dependent on our on-campus community engaging in social distancing, wearing a mask and keeping hands sanitized. We have reminders of these practices posted throughout campus,” she wrote in an email to VOA.

In addition to signs about social distancing and wearing masks on campus, there are three different flow charts of procedures that students should follow if they contract coronavirus living on campus, off campus or in a distance-learning environment.

As Milan mentioned, the spread of coronavirus on campuses depends on student behavior and whether they obey social distancing guidelines and other policies laid out by their universities.

Appelbaum noted that if he saw students disobeying rules UGA laid out, he would ask people to put their masks on and observe social distancing. “I just want to be as safe as I can be in a bad situation,” he said.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly included Michigan Technological University among institutions that do not have a clear plan to deal with the coronavirus.

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Americans' confidence in higher education falls, poll shows

FILE - A passer-by walks through a gate to the Harvard University campus, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jan. 2, 2024.
FILE - A passer-by walks through a gate to the Harvard University campus, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jan. 2, 2024.

Confidence in higher education among Americans is declining, according to a recent poll that found 36% of adults expressed a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in higher education, down from 57% in 2015.

The Gallup and the Lumina Foundation poll also revealed that more than two-thirds (68%) of adults feel the U.S. higher education system is heading in the “wrong direction” vs. 31% of those respondents saying it is going in the “right direction.”

The poll, conducted June 3-23, surveyed 1,005 Americans aged 18 and older.

Declining enrollment mirrors concerns voiced by some Americans about colleges focusing on political agendas, neglecting relevant skills and being overly expensive.

Nathan Wyand, a software engineer in Charlottesville, Virginia, told VOA News he chose not to attend college due to high costs and the challenging curriculum.

“The mode of learning was very stressful. Every month and a half, I would break down in tears,” Wyand said, adding, “I didn’t want to deal with the debt and lack of freedom in choosing what to learn.”

Post-high school, Wyand said he explored different jobs before pursuing software development through a 10-month data science bootcamp at Flatiron School in New York.

“I took online courses at Flatiron, learning about software development. In my current role, I have practical experience, though less theoretical knowledge than peers with computer science degrees,” Wyand noted.

Wyand valued freedom in learning over being told what to learn in a structured classroom.

“I didn't want other people to tell me what I was going to learn, I was tired of that and ready to take charge of my education,” he said.

While costs influenced Wyand’s decision against college, he advises against dismissing it solely due to expenses.

“Don’t avoid college because you’re lazy or because it’s expensive. Avoid college if you feel that there is something better or more interesting to you that you can pursue instead. It’s important to have an objective,” he said.

The survey conducted last month reaffirms that 36% of adults maintain strong confidence in higher education, unchanged from the previous year.

“At a time where the U.S. needs more skilled Americans to fulfill our labor market needs of today and tomorrow it is concerning to see that they are losing confidence that higher education can deliver what they need,” Courtney Brown, vice president at Lumina, an education nonprofit, told VOA News.

Researchers are concerned by fewer Americans expressing “some” confidence and more reporting of “very little” or “none.”

“This year’s findings show a notable increase in those with little to no confidence, now at 32%, compared to 10% in 2015. This trend is alarming and must be reversed,” Brown said.

Brown stressed the need to address concerns about perceived political influences and lack of relevant skills in higher education.

“Society must tackle college costs directly. Many find college unaffordable, leading to crippling debt. I do believe higher ed can transform and ensure it meets the needs of students, but to do so we must pay attention to these data and address these concerns head on – the stakes of not doing so are far too great for individuals, communities and our nation,” Brown added.

John Pollock, a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, told VOA he agrees with the poll’s findings.

“College is a business, not a guarantee for jobs or debt repayment. Many our age see multiple paths to success,” Pollock said. He added that networking opportunities are one value that colleges offer.

Of the roughly one-third of Americans who expressed a “great deal/quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, 27% said it is important for individuals and society to be educated.

Of the roughly one-third of Americans who said their confidence in higher education was “very little/none,” 41% cited colleges as being “too liberal,” or trying to “indoctrinate” or “brainwash” students as reasons for their replies.

Overall, 68% of respondents believe higher education is on the wrong track, contrasting with 31% who see it heading in the right direction.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.

Report: US could have 2.8M international students in 10 years

FILE - Students walk on the campus of Boston College, April 29, 2024, in Boston.
FILE - Students walk on the campus of Boston College, April 29, 2024, in Boston.

The United States, which currently has 1,057,188 students from 210 countries, could have 2.8 million students by 2034, according to a report in India’s Free Press Journal.

The report says India is likely to make a significant contribution to the increase, along with China, Vietnam, Nigeria and Bangladesh. (June 2024)

Small group of colleges educates 20% of undergrads 

FILE - A cyclist crosses an intersection on the campus of Arizona State University on Sept. 1, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz.
FILE - A cyclist crosses an intersection on the campus of Arizona State University on Sept. 1, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz.

A group of just 102 public and private, four-year U.S. colleges and universities has an enrollment of 3.3 million students – about 1 in 5 of the nation’s undergraduates.

The Chronicle of Higher Education took a look at the institutions, their locations and their students. (June 2024)

After $1B gift, most Johns Hopkins medical students won't pay tuition

A sign stands in front of part of the Johns Hopkins Hospital complex, July 8, 2014, in Baltimore. Most medical students at Johns Hopkins University will no longer pay tuition thanks to a $1 billion gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies.
A sign stands in front of part of the Johns Hopkins Hospital complex, July 8, 2014, in Baltimore. Most medical students at Johns Hopkins University will no longer pay tuition thanks to a $1 billion gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Most medical students at Johns Hopkins University will no longer pay tuition thanks to a $1 billion gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies announced Monday.

Starting in the fall, the donation will cover full tuition for medical students from families earning less than $300,000. Living expenses and fees will be covered for students from families who earn up to $175,000.

Bloomberg Philanthropies said that currently almost two-thirds of all students seeking a doctor of medicine degree from Johns Hopkins qualify for financial aid, and 45% of the current class will also receive living expenses. The school estimates that graduates' average total loans will decrease from $104,000 currently to $60,279 by 2029.

The gift will also increase financial aid for students at the university's schools of nursing, public health, and other graduate schools.

"By reducing the financial barriers to these essential fields, we can free more students to pursue careers they're passionate about – and enable them to serve more of the families and communities who need them the most," Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Bloomberg LP, said in a statement on Monday. Bloomberg received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University in 1964.

FILE - Former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg speaks during the Earthshot Prize Innovation Summit in New York, Sept. 19, 2023.
FILE - Former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg speaks during the Earthshot Prize Innovation Summit in New York, Sept. 19, 2023.

The gift will go to John Hopkins' endowment and every penny will go directly to students, said Ron Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University.

"Mike has really been moved by the challenges that the professions confronted during the course of the pandemic and the heroic efforts they've made to protecting and providing care to American citizens during the pandemic," Daniels said in an interview. "I think he simply wanted to recognize the importance of these fields and provide this support to ensure that the best and brightest could attend medical school and the school of nursing and public health."

Bloomberg Philanthropies previously gifted $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins in 2018 to ensure that undergraduate students are accepted regardless of their family's income.

Johns Hopkins will be the latest medical school to offer free tuition to most or all of their medical students.

In February Ruth Gottesman, a former professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the widow of a Wall Street investor, announced that she was donating $1 billion to the school. The gift meant that four-year students immediately received free tuition and all other students will be offered free tuition in the fall.

In 2018, Kenneth and Elaine Langone gave $100 million to the NYU Grossman School of Medicine to make tuition free for all current and future medical students through an endowment fund. The couple gave a second gift of $200 million in 2023 to the NYU Grossman Long Island School of Medicine to guarantee free tuition for all medical students. Kenneth Langone is a co-founder of Home Depot.

Other medical schools, like UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, offer merit-based scholarships thanks to some $146 million in donations from the recording industry mogul, David Geffen. The Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine has also offered tuition-free education for medical students since 2008.

Candice Chen, associate professor, Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University, has researched the social missions of medical schools and had a strong reaction to the recent major gifts to John Hopkins, NYU and Albert Einstein.

"Collectively the medical schools right now, I hate to say this, but they're failing in terms of producing primary care, mental health specialists as well as the doctors who will work in and serve in rural and underserved communities," Chen said. She would have loved to see this gift go to Meharry Medical College in Tennessee, for example, which is a historically Black school that has produced many primary care doctors who work in communities that have shortages.

Bloomberg granted Meharry Medical College $34 million in 2020 as part of a $100 million gift he made to four Black medical schools to help reduce the debt of their medical students for four years.

There have been only a handful of previous $1 billion donations to universities in the U.S., most coming in the past several years.

In 2022, the venture capitalist John Doerr and his wife, Ann, gave $1.1 billion to Stanford University for a new school focusing on climate change.

The small liberal arts school McPherson College has received two matching pledges since 2022 from an anonymous donor totaling $1 billion. The school, which has around 800 enrolled students, has a program for automotive restoration and is located 57 miles north of Wichita, Kansas.

Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, gave $3 billion to charities in 2023, making him one of the largest donors, according to research by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Fewer job opportunities for computer science majors 

FILE - Students walk out of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.
FILE - Students walk out of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Recent computer science majors are finding entry-level jobs harder to come by, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

The newspaper found that tech companies are scaling back on hiring and turning more attention to artificial intelligence. (May 2024)

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