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Pandemic Semester: A Conversation With Student Journalists, Leaders

A student walks on campus at the University of South Carolina on September 3, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
A student walks on campus at the University of South Carolina on September 3, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

We talk to campus leaders around the country about a challenging semester for college students.


Andy Thomason, senior editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Author of a forthcoming book about the academic fraud scandal at the University of North Carolina and what it revealed about college sports and higher education. ( @arthomason)

Fana HaileSelassie, student government president at Spelman College. ( @SpelmanSGA)

Colleen Martin, president and editor-in-chief of The Heights, a student newspaper at Boston College.

Lizzy Lawrence, editor-in-chief of The Michigan Daily, a student newspaper at the University of Michigan.

Jon Ort, editor-in-chief of the Daily Princetonian, a student newspaper at Princeton University.

Pascal Albright, managing editor at The Daily Wildcat, a student newspaper at the University of Arizona.

Interview Highlights

On how the pandemic and remote learning have heightened inequities among students

Fana HaileSelassie: “I’m doing considerably well, considering the circumstances, but I can’t say the same for all students. What we saw at the onset of the pandemic was how college campuses serve as an equalizer of sorts by providing a safe living and learning environment for students. But when students return home, not every student is returning to a conducive living and learning environment. And so I want to address the inequalities that this pandemic has brought to the surface and higher education in terms of students backgrounds.

“The assumption that every student is in an environment that can adapt to virtual learning. When I returned home, I was living with my grandmother and living in her home. And so that comes with a host of responsibilities. As for other students, they may have been taking their classes and they’re helping their little siblings through their new virtual classes. I know other peers who’ve had to get full time jobs to make ends meet and help parents at home. So these are the things that we have to consider as we all make this transition to the digital world.”

On how Black college students are dealing with a country in crisis while in class

Fana HaileSellassie: “As a historically black college, the number one historically black college in the country, Spelman’s community is quite different than that of other other institutions in the U.S. in that we’re serving a majority-Black community that is also experiencing a pandemic that is disproportionately impacting us, and a racial crisis. So for one example, when we went home, not only were we hit with the reality of losing many family members and friends to this virus, but to see our other community members slain by the police and others who were advocating for justice or experienced similar interactions, it’s quite traumatic, to say the least.”

On why so many institutions decided to reopen in-person, despite the risks

Andy Thomason: “Reopening was a really complex decision for colleges. There was much financial pressure involved in doing so… Most colleges in American higher education are tuition-dependent, meaning they rely on the money they get from tuition payments year in and year out to keep the doors open, to keep the lights on. So that was obviously a pressure. There’s political pressure that we see at state colleges from the state governing bodies because reopening has become a political issue. So we saw, especially in North Carolina and Georgia, pressure from the states to at least give reopening a stab.”

On colleges punishing students for breaking public health restrictions

Andy Thomason: “Well, much of that action has actually been predominantly rhetorical, sort of warning students saying, ‘This semester, if it has to end early, it’s on you. It’s not on us.’ That’s the message from administrators on many campuses. There have been lots of suspensions at lots of campuses. It actually helped sort of spur something of a backlash, among others in the higher education community, [who are] saying the students didn’t make the decision to reopen, it was the administrators. And are you going to blame students for being students when they didn’t really have a hand in these plans? Some observers called it hypocritical.”

On universities’ testing strategies

Lizzy Lawrence: “Currently the university is testing symptomatic students. And then also, if you’ve been confirmed in contact with someone who has tested positive, then they’re also doing surveillance testing around 3,000 individuals, is their goal. It’s not super randomized, this system. So it’s really hard. I mean, anecdotally, I’ve had friends who have struggled to get testing from the university, so I know some people who are going outside of the university, to testing events with the county. There’s a lot of frustration with the university’s dashboard and how that’s being updated and whether those numbers are even accurate, because we’re talking about a small fraction of the population.”

Andy Thomason: “There are some campuses that are pretty much just testing symptomatic students. That’s kind of the lowest rung of the testing strategy. And then on the other end of the spectrum, you have places like the University of Illinois, which is testing all students twice a week. So there’s a huge variation in testing strategies. And one of the things there is that testing can cost a lot of money now that the cost might be coming down. But as campuses were devising their testing strategies, cost was a big factor in favor of perhaps less stringent testing regiment. And one other thing I just wanted to add is that while it’s true that, you know, presidents bear some responsibility for testing strategy and this rhetoric that, you know, testing everyone on campus might give people a false sense of security. That was the CDC guidance that colleges got on testing in the summer.”

On building community despite mostly-remote classes

John Ort: “Now that we’re sort of starting exclusively online, people are really trying to maintain community, and especially for incoming students, people who have been away from campus for a long time, thinking about how they can build relationships, build friendships and kind of take advantage of all that college has to offer. And so both for our college paper and I think more broadly for Princeton students and students across the nation, this is a very real challenge.”

On the importance of campus resources for many low-income students

Andy Thomason: “This idea, which is true, obviously, that so many college students are reliant on so many aspects of the on campus experience, including mental health counseling and other things like that in the structure — this was a key variable that college leaders stated in the decision to reopen to some degree in person. And that was consistent across several different institution types: Public universities, privates and HBCUs. We talked to Fana from Spelman earlier today, and it reminded me of a conversation that I had with the president of Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, earlier this year. And she basically said one of the main reasons we’re reopening in person is our student body is predominantly low income, vulnerable. They need this campus experience and that’s Need with a capital N, they need it. And so that was a key decision point for her. But as I said, it is something that’s playing out all across the country at all different sorts of institutions.”

On a potential wave of students who choose not to enroll

Andy Thomason: “One big worry that people have about this crisis is that there will be Jacques’s out there who decide to take a year off, do not enroll, and then they never enroll. There’s this concept in American education, summer melt, this idea that lots of students who get admitted to a college end up not enrolling because life gets in the way. And this could be summer melt on steroids. This could be a whole class of students who could never enroll. That’s really worrying.”

On whether colleges can justify charging full tuition for remote classes

Pascal Albright: “That’s a big topic and conversation that’s happening all across campuses, because you’re paying for all these amenities and resources and you can’t use the library every time, like every single day. You cannot use the rec center every single time, there’s certain time slots now and then. So there is a big debate on, like some students I know are requesting refunds or are trying to be in contact with administration to see if there can be some sort of discount or some other amenities that can be added because students are upset. Especially we hear a lot from first-year students that want this whole college experience. But during a pandemic, of course, it’s going to be different, and there’s frustration.”

Andy Thomason: “What I would say about college tuition is that what a college would probably tell you about keeping tuition relatively stable, even in this crisis, is that they have lots of costs that are fixed, you know, payroll stuff, what they pay faculty. The faculty are still working. They still need to be paid. And so they can’t really cut corners on that cost. That’s one thing that they would tell you. But, big picture, this could become a trust issue for colleges because many colleges have bought into this notion or embraced it, that a college degree from an American university is a product. And when you embrace that notion, you are on the hook for when your product doesn’t deliver what you said it would. And so it could be a thing into the future where students who had unpleasant experiences, parents who had to pay full tuition for a year, that was like no other year, they might trust American colleges a little bit less than they did before.”

On how students are coping with the changes in college life

John Ort: “The fact is that this pandemic isn’t going to disappear overnight, and that’s, for a lot of college students, especially people who are seniors, you know, their sort of ‘normal college days’ are probably over. And if anything, I think that’s led for a lot of people, including myself, for recognition of how important friendships and relationships are, and how important it is to try to maintain what was so important to us in college. So even though that’s over Zoom, I think we’re seeing that people are really making a concerted effort, even if it can’t be a person, thinking about how they can serve their campus community, how they can be there for one another.”

From The Reading List

Chronicle of Higher Education: “ Here’s Our List of Colleges’ Reopening Models” — “The coronavirus pandemic left higher-education leaders facing difficult decisions about how to reopen campuses.”

Boston Globe: “ State to head up contact tracing at Boston College amid COVID-19 outbreak” — “The unprecedented move is an effort to ‘more effectively’ coordinate tracing work among Newton, Brookline, and Boston, which surround BC, and ensure that the state’s infection rate remains low, Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday. The college will collaborate with the state.”

Washington Post: “ The latest crisis: Low-income students are dropping out of college this fall in alarming numbers” — “In August, Paige McConnell became the first in her family to go to college — and the first to drop out.”

Chronicle of Higher Education: “ Spring Planning Has Begun. Here’s What Colleges Are Thinking So Far.” — “The fall semester is barely underway, but several colleges are already announcing their instruction plans for the spring. The bottom line, so far, is that few institutions will change their approaches — whether face to face, remote, or a mix of the two.”

Washington Post: “ A group of students knew they had covid-19. They hosted a party over Labor Day anyway.” — “When a police officer pulled up to a house near the Miami University campus in Oxford, Ohio, last weekend, he found seven young men hanging around on the front porch, unmasked, drinking beer and listening to Southern rock music.”

Washington Post: “ How and why the Big Ten decided to play football this fall” — “After more than a month of announcements, protests and silence from the conference office, the Big Ten on Wednesday reversed course, announcing that it will play an eight-game football season beginning the weekend of Oct. 23-24 after it was originally postponed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.