As college decision deadline nears, schools plan for some on-campus classes

  • "Our intent is to be open, but if the situation changes, we're going to be prepared to pivot," Elmhurst College President Troy VanAken said of plans for the fall semester.

    "Our intent is to be open, but if the situation changes, we're going to be prepared to pivot," Elmhurst College President Troy VanAken said of plans for the fall semester. Daily Herald file photo

  • "We intend to do everything in our power to welcome students to campus in August," Wheaton College President Philip Ryken said in a statement. "Although we cannot promise this, we are planning for it."

    "We intend to do everything in our power to welcome students to campus in August," Wheaton College President Philip Ryken said in a statement. "Although we cannot promise this, we are planning for it." Daily Herald file photo

 
 
Updated 5/14/2020 2:00 AM

As college campuses prepare to reopen in some fashion this fall, a bigger question remains: How many students will decide to show up?

Higher education is bracing for enrollment declines as students hold off on pursuing a degree during a pandemic economy that wreaks havoc on family finances. Health concerns pose a dilemma for households reconsidering whether to bear the cost of tuition if a student's college experience is reduced to a computer screen.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Many schools have given high school seniors an extra month to make a final decision. That confirmation deadline is now June 1.

To help them solidify their plans, public and private colleges have announced efforts to restart on-campus classes for the fall semester.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign could move to a combination of face-to-face and online instruction, but Chancellor Robert Jones has said the school will make a formal announcement by the middle of June. In the suburbs, Elmhurst College and the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn also are developing a "hybrid model."

"When we announced our intent, the goal would be to offer in-person learning in the fall if at all possible as we start our first year as Elmhurst University, but of course we're going to make sure we comply with the state reopening plans," Elmhurst President Troy VanAken said.

Elmhurst officially will drop "college" from its moniker in June, a name change approved nearly a year ago. It remains a liberal arts school with smaller class sizes that could accommodate social distancing. Hybrid learning might have some students on site and others watching a video feed of the same class, VanAken said.

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"So one way to practice the social distancing would have different people come to in-person class at different times," he said.

Before the pandemic, Elmhurst had seen three years of record enrollment. The school also has had a 7% increase in its first- to second-year retention rate over the past three years, VanAken said.

"Elmhurst came into this in a fairly strong position," he said. "That doesn't mean we can just ignore a 10% or 15% or 20% reduction in overall enrollment, but I think that's what we're really watching. ... We're doing some scenario planning there, anywhere from 5% to 15% down, because we think that's just prudent at this juncture."

Another liberal arts school, Wheaton College, has extended its confirmation deadline to June 1. Many admitted applicants are working to finalize their plans for the fall, but more than 95% of eligible returning students already have confirmed -- a number on par with last year's at this time, spokeswoman LaTonya Taylor said.

"We intend to do everything in our power to welcome students to campus in August," Wheaton President Philip Ryken said in a statement. "Although we cannot promise this, we are planning for it. If significant health and safety risks of COVID-19 dictate, we will not hesitate to shift decisively to an alternate scenario."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Judson University in Elgin intends to have staff members gradually return throughout the summer and begin in-person classes at the start of the new academic year in August. University leaders also are developing at least three contingency plans based on government guidelines.

North Central College in Naperville is focusing on an in-person launch to the fall semester, President Troy Hammond wrote in a letter to families. But a task force also is planning for a possible delayed start, or beginning the fall term with remote instruction and then moving to the in-person model.

In Lisle, Benedictine University expects students to return for the fall. The Catholic school is creating a plan for each phase of Gov. J.B. Pritzker's "Restore Illinois" road map to reopening.

Regardless of what fall classes will look like, faculties will have to spend the summer working out the logistics of all the scenarios. Schools also are determining how to eventually bring students back into dorms and how to increase financial aid.

Elmhurst College recently raised $104,000 for a student emergency fund.

"We're going to still try to meet the needs of the students that are coming to us," VanAken said.

• Daily Herald staff writer Marie Wilson contributed to this report.

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