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SLAC education this fall (#1078)

Topics/tags: Miscellaneous

Today, Grinnell announced its initial plans for Fall 2020. That announcement suggests that, for public health reasons, we will work under a hybrid model in which we have fewer students on campus and some online. It’s not ideal; students come to Grinnell for all the benefits of a small liberal arts college (SLAC), including not just the small classes, but the chance to interact closely with faculty, staff, and interesting and intelligent peers [1]. But it’s better to keep our students, ourselves, and our community safe. And, as I’ve been saying to a bunch of folks, a small, carefully designed, online course, taught by dedicated faculty, with excellent students is likely to be better than the vast majority of courses offered by colleges in America [2]. I’ve heard from some colleagues that, once they got into the swing of things, their synchronous online courses were as good as their in-person courses. And, compared to a socially distanced in-person class, an online class might actually be better for, say, active learning [3].

Last week, in preparation for that announcement, President Kington and Dean Harris held chats with faculty, staff, and parents. I hear that the one for students has been rescheduled. At the parents chat [4], many parents were quite supportive of the College’s plans, understanding our need to prioritize public health. A few were, understandably, concerned that their students would be missing the benefits of being on campus and pointed to, say Notre Dame and Purdue, as schools that plan to be completely in person. (They did not note that the Cal State system has committed to being online. Perhaps it’s that Indiana is closer than California.) Eventually, someone pointed to the Chronicle of Higher Education data set, which suggests that 65% of schools are planning in-person learning.

Rather than just look at the high-level data, I decided to see what was happening with our comparison group of peer colleges, who we often refer to as the Peer Sixteen. What does Chronicle say?

  • Nine (9) are waiting to decide: Amherst, Bowdoin, Pomona, Reed, Smith, St. Olaf, Swarthmore, Vassar, and Williams.
  • Two (2) are considering a range of scenarios: Colorado and Davidson. What’s the difference between waiting to decide and considering a range of scenarios? I have no idea.
  • Two (2) 2 are not listed: Carleton and Washington and Lee. Looking online, I see that Carleton is still waiting to decide. So is Washington and Lee. W&L does say If we can return to in-person instruction in the fall in a way that is safe for our campus and local community, we will. Grinnell has concluded that we cannot.
  • Three (3) are planning for in-person courses: Kenyon, Macalester, and Oberlin.

But are Kenyon, Mac, and Oberlin really planning for in-person classes? Let’s see.

Kenyon’s update from May 26 reports,

Earlier this month, the most unusual semester in recent history came to a close. And with little more than an exhale, we are deep into the planning for next academic year. While we have yet to finalize our academic calendar, we continue to target August 27 for our first day of classes, on campus and in person.

Yup, they plan to be in-person in fall.

Here’s what Macalester said in April, the most recent announcement I could find.

Our strong preference is to complete two full semesters of on-campus instruction in the 2020-2021 school year.

If necessary, we will adjust our academic calendar to achieve two full semesters of on-campus instruction. Discussions thus far indicate that the fall semester could begin as late as November and still leave enough time to complete the entire academic year. We prefer this calendar-shifting approach to other options such as a combination of remote and on-campus instruction.

Only if it becomes necessary and unavoidable will we consider a semester, or partial semester, of remote, online learning. This is our last, and least preferable, option. We will think creatively about how to minimize the use of this option.

That’s not nearly as certain as Kenyon. November? Is having all students start in November better than letting some students return in August and more return a bit later? I will admit that I prefer starting close to on-time, with some students in person and some online, provided students can take a leave rather than take online courses [5].

What about Oberlin? It sounds to me like they haven’t really decided, either.

There are still many unknowns, as the situation continues to evolve. It is our strong desire to return classes to campus at the beginning of the semester. We are not yet certain when it would be prudent to start the semester. Our top priority is the safety of our students, faculty, and staff. We are developing our strategies with input from the local health authorities, the State of Ohio, and national higher education groups who are studying approaches across the country. We expect to announce a decision about the fall semester in early to mid-June.

Is Grinnell making a decision that is out-of-line with our peers? Only one seems firmly committed to an in-person semester starting at the normal time. No one seems to be following the Notre Dame model of starting earlier. Like the others, we are uncertain, but moving forward as best we can.

I guess there are a few differences. We’re making our announcement a bit sooner. We’re accepting that, given the current situation, we don’t think we can safely bring all of our students back to campus. Are these the right decisions? Only time will tell. But, if I had to wager, I’d wager that, come the fall, most schools that can afford to have low density on campus will have low density on campus.

[1] The faculty and staff are also likely intelligent and, possibly, interesting.

[2] Yeah, I’m arrogant about my institution. I believe it deserves that arrogance. And I’m not alone in thinking highly of our faculty; we are regularly at the top of the U.S. News rankings of quality of teaching as judged by peer institutions.

[3] Have I said that already?

[4] I’m a faculty member and a parent. I spent last semester as a student in a class. I’m an honorary member of the classes of ’01 and ’17, which I think makes me an alum. I get to experience Grinnell in so many ways!

[5] My reading of our policies suggests that leaves are possible.

Version 1.0 of 2020-06-01.