From Dorm Living to Classes, Here's How College Will Be Different This Fall

The CDC is recommending a number of safety measures for colleges, which include closing shared spaces like dining halls, game rooms, gyms and lounges

Graduation caps.
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Amid the uncertainty of what college will look like this fall, one thing is for sure — it won’t be the typical experience for students.

There may be in-person classes, online learning only or a hybrid model that combines the two.

That is just the academic end. There is also life on campus: when and where to don a mask, what type of social activities will be permitted and how dorm living will work.

“Students who get back to campus are going to find themselves on very different campuses and in a very different environment than they expected,” said Debra Felix, a former director of admissions at New York’s Columbia University who now runs her own firm, Felix Educational Consulting.

“It won’t be the interactive, busy, fun kind of a place where people are banging ideas around in a dorm room at midnight.”

‘I want the traditional college experience’

For incoming senior Kassin Reynolds, the wait to find out his school’s fall plans has been frustrating. He lives in Middlesex County, New Jersey, and commutes more than an hour each way to Ramapo College.

“I like going to school. I like learning. I also like seeing my friends,” he said. “I want the traditional college experience.”

Ramapo’s website states the school is “actively planning for the Fall 2020 semester” and will announce a decision on July 15. 

“We are very keen to return to campus and are cautiously optimistic about the possibility,” Ramapo President Peter J. Mercer said in an email statement to CNBC. “To this end, we have developed critical action plans for what must occur in order for the College to return to in-person learning, return to on-campus residential/activity operations, and, if needed, adjust to a hybrid learning and/or operational environment.”

Other schools, like Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, have already announced plans to reopen. Seton Hall is starting classes Aug. 24 and ending instruction earlier than usual on Nov. 24 in an effort to reduce the risk of spreading the virus during colder months. Review sessions and final exams will be administered remotely after the Thanksgiving break.

“I’m just hoping that, by then, the numbers will go down and life will flow as usual,” said Seton Hall incoming sophomore Jasmine Cartwright-Atkins.

“Of course, right now there are still some anxieties about how that will go.”

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking about 960 colleges across the U.S., 65% of higher-education institutions are planning for in-person classes, 8% are planning for online and 11% are proposing a hybrid model. Additionally, 9% are considering a “range of scenarios” and 6% are waiting to decide.

Campus life

While students may want to return to campus, life is going to look and feel very different.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending a number of safety measures for colleges, which include closing shared spaces like dining halls, game rooms, gyms and lounges if possible and the use of cloth face masks around campus.

“The challenge is that we’ve seen very different responses to the current situation, from communities asking everyone to wear masks to other communities only 30 minutes away where very few people wear masks — and all these norms will collide together on campus,” said Jason Dorsey, president and lead researcher at The Center for Generational Kinetics, a global Gen Z and millennial research and strategy firm in Austin, Texas.

He also predicts large organized activities, like rushing a fraternity or sorority and intramural sports, could be put on hold or severely impacted. The same goes for recreational options in college towns.

“The impact would be less opportunity for students to socialize, make new friends and have the typical college experience, especially for incoming freshmen,” Dorsey said.


The CDC also recommends modifying the classroom layouts, so big lecture halls packed with students will be gone. Instead, everyone inside a classroom will be seated 6 feet apart, and seats and rows in lecture halls may be taped off.

Even while classes may go on, there will also be no hands-on interactive group activities, Felix pointed out.

And when it comes to taking the online classes, students will “be taking the class in the dorm room by themselves,” she said.

Dorm living or off campus

So far, colleges have been taking different approaches to address on-campus housing in the age of Covid-19, and many are still deciding what to do, said Von Stange, president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International.

“Some schools have gone with single rooms,” said Stange, also assistant vice president for student life and senior director of university housing and dining at the University of Iowa.

“Others have allowed doubles but have ‘de-densified’ their housing.”

The bathroom issue will also have to be addressed since those facilities are often shared by 10 or 20 students. The lounge may also be adjusted so that the seating is spread out.

“Some of the programs that you see for smaller groups may occur at a distance,” Stange noted. “Large things may occur a lot more virtually.”

The changes may lead some students to opt for off-campus housing. Those units are set up differently, generally with three or four bedrooms with a kitchen and living area, as well as a bathroom.

“If to a degree that you have to ask for social distancing in dorms, that is just going to push more people to the purpose-built off-campus housing,” said Matthew Berger, who co-leads student housing along with Dave Borsos at the National Multifamily Housing Council.

“The units tend to be much bigger in terms of square foot per student than your traditional on-campus housing.”

In fact, a number of members of the council who provide off-campus housing said colleges have already started reaching out to them to get more housing space.

Between that and students possibly moving on their own off-campus, it may put “a bit of a squeeze on the availability for off-campus housing,” Borsos said.

Goodbye to some programs

Then there are budget cuts likely to come due to the financial blow colleges have taken during the pandemic.

Already hard hit before the crisis, they had to return room and board fees to students who were sent home in the spring. On top of that, enrollment will likely be down in the fall and there will be an increase in demand for financial aid.

That could mean some sports, like golf or track, could be eliminated, said education consultant Felix.

More from Invest in You:
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“Luxuries” such as spas, pools, clubs and rock climbing walls could go by the wayside, as could construction and infrastructure development a college had planned, she said. Meals at the dining hall could also be downgraded.

“They’ll start to hone in on, ‘what educationally do we need to keep’ and if it doesn’t enhance the educational program it might get the ax,” Felix predicted.

In fact, she believes even education could be impacted if schools reduce or cut out humanities and liberal arts classes in order to save money.

Lasting impact?

Some changes may be here to stay, even after the pandemic has passed.

Gen Z expert Dorsey predicts that distancing learning and online collaboration will become the “go-to resources” for learning, collaboration and engagement.

“For as much as people complain about video chat and online platforms, the reality is these technologies have brought education, connection, and community to students’ homes around the world,” he said.

“It likely will be further integrated even when higher education eventually has the option to offer all classes in-person.”

Felix worries that the changes made due to budget cuts will also stick around.

“Colleges may be thrilled to finally have an excuse to eliminate their under-enrolled classes, frivolous activities, obscure services, unproductive professors, and least ‘sexy’ departments,” she said.

“They will justifiably sacrifice them over the altar of Covid-19 austerity measures, do a quiet, ‘Ding Dong, the witch is finally dead’ dance and move on with what’s left.”

Disclosure: Invest in You: Ready. Set. Grow. is a financial wellness and education initiative from CNBC and Acorns, the micro-invest app.  NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

—CNBC’s Robert Exley Jr. contributed to this report.

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