Most colleges plan to have in-person, on campus classes this fall. In fact, it’s not even most colleges, it’s nearly all of them.

According to the best public tracking of those plans, 61% of colleges say they are planning for in-person instruction and a further 19% say they are planning a hybrid model, a mix of in-person and online. When you lump in another 10% of colleges who report they are “considering a range of options” and “waiting to decide,” a precious few – just 8% of those responding – say they will be online only.  

Many people find that surprising.

It probably should not be.

The argument for staying with online instruction is easy to understand. Clumping people together, in classes, in dorms, in study groups, in the inevitable college parties and socializing is dangerous now. And it does not look as though it will be much different when we get to the months that end in -ber.

The reasons for bringing students back to campus are less easy to understand, but they can be pretty compelling too.

A cynic will say the answer is money – that colleges need the housing payments students bring with them. And for some colleges, that’s absolutely true. There are complex financial arrangements tied to their housing stock, and empty dorm rooms can manifest strong and adverse consequences.

But there is another reason that college leaders want to get students back in classrooms – they simply don’t want to run their college online again.   

They don’t want to go online again because they are increasingly worried about the quality of the online programs they are rolling out, worried about the long term damage those shortcuts may to do to the academic reputations that underpin the value of their degrees. In college land, academic reputation is everything, the difference between Cornell University and Cornerstone University and the most valuable asset any college has.   

This week, Inside Higher Ed (IHE) released their third and final survey of nearly 100 college presidents and provosts and top decision makers. The headline finding is that an increasingly significant percentage of those leaders have concerns about a, “perceived decrease in the value of higher education” at their institution. The survey asked the question three times, once each in March, April and June, all in the context of Covid-19.

In March, 48% of college leaders were concerned about a decline in perceived value. In April, it jumped to 60%. In the June survey, 72% of college leaders had those concerns.

The question did not ask specifically whether the worry about “perceived value” is tied to moving their programs online. That is worth noting because the fine print of the survey says it, “was made possible in part by the financial support of D2L, Academic Partnerships, and Everspring” – three companies that sell products and services to colleges for their online programs.

Even so, it is no challenge to read between the lines of what happened at colleges, related to Covid-19, between March and June, why college leaders are increasingly worried. They moved online and the results started coming in.


It’s been obvious that students, parents and most professors hated it and continue to worry about it. As examples, the moderate think tank ThirdWay, recently hosted a four-day, online conversation with 30 current college students. Sure enough, the value of their degree, as impacted by Covid-19 online learning, came up in the findings.

ThirdWay quoted one student saying, “I feel like an online only degree is worth less. I feel like people see them as less legitimate. I also think they cost too much.”

The group also said some students were worried that they were, “working towards a ‘pandemic degree’ which will be viewed skeptically” by employers. A student said, “I’m most worried about how my degree will be considered among other applicants that completed degrees before this time, without this corona disruption. Will it be viewed as lesser because I didn’t complete my courses in-class?”

Those are quotes from just a few students, but they echo the foundation of the ubiquitous legal challenges students have filed seeking refunds for being forced off campus and online this spring. About half of the college leaders in that IHE survey say they have “concerns” about those refund demands, by the way. So, there’s no question college leaders are hearing these comments, these concerns.

And then there is the money. The number one “concern” of Presidents and provosts in that IHE survey – 91% – was “decline in overall future student enrollment” which is code for money. A robust 88% said they were concerned about “overall financial stability,” which is also money.

Overlay that nearly universal worry with the repeated surveys showing that students don’t want fall to be online, and if it is going to be that way, they may consider alternatives or expect tuition discounts.  That they don’t want pandemic degrees.

Even though those student poll results probably reflect anxiety and anger instead of intent, colleges literally can’t afford the risk that students may skip out if they’re required to go online. Then there are those nagging, perhaps costly legal challenges. Then there is the long term risk, the brand erosion, the reputation damage that continuing online will further pull down the perceived value of their degree – the big enchilada consequence that college leaders are increasingly worried about.

That does not mean coming back to campus is the right call, just that it’s a complicated one. And it may explain why so many schools are doing it.



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