For Some Small Colleges, the Pandemic Could Sadly Be Their Savior

By Karen Gross

Pre-pandemic, a good number of us lamented the demise of small colleges. Let’s define these here as non-elite colleges with enrollment of fewer than 1,500 full-time undergraduate students. For the most part, these institutions have few graduate programs, a handful at most.

Some of these colleges have closed; some have merged; some have partnered. Whatever the structure, it feels to me still like small colleges are failing and closing in droves. Just look at the recent debacle in Vermont concerning its fiscally fragile state college system.

For some small institutions, it certainly seemed like a premature and even unnecessary death. The four main causes for closure (or its equivalent) proffered publicly by campus personnel were straightforward: changing demographics with accompanying declining enrollment; high tuition costs leading to steep discounting and concerns regarding rising student debt loads; campus personnel costs (think tenure or long-term contracts) and accompanying retirement benefits; and absence of a large endowments to withstand and be buffered from shifting and changing tides.

Some of us saw other deficiencies that the colleges and their boards were less keen on referencing or addressing out loud: poor presidential leadership (as in really poor judgment and decision-making or failure to decide anything); lack of institutional vision and innovation, particularly in a fashion that anticipated trends and currents that were on the horizon; weak board oversight and failure to ask the tough questions; board fear of litigation (think Mount Ida); and growth in administrative personnel leading to bloat and higher-than-needed costs.

Some folks are fighting back and some are wondering why others aren’t fighting harder to save colleges, not just for the students, faculty, staff and alums but for the local communities where these colleges are located and who depend on them for revenue. There’s been no shortage of suggestions for how to save the many small colleges that dot our landscape, especially in New England.

And we can and should continue these conversations about these failures and the wasted salvation efforts; they are instructive for future thinking and reflection. They offer clues and insights for the remaining small colleges.

Along came the pandemic

Then along came COVID-19 and with it, institutional closures due and a quick shift to online learning (which might be a misnomer in some instances in terms of whether learning actually occurred). The higher education landscape changed in a nanosecond. More closures are expected.

Admissions and retention for fall 2020 has become a guessing game as it remains unclear if existing students will return to campus and whether new students will enroll. Deposited new students can and might well melt in substantial numbers. We just don’t know.

And each passing month, using metrics from the past (as if they have continued applicability), we fail to reliably predict the future. For some small colleges, a loss of 10 or 20 students can make the difference between a balanced and unbalanced budget. And accreditors are watching fiscal stability like hawks. (The reasons for that need their own article.)

The debate has raged about reopening and if it happens, how it can be done safely, thoughtfully and wisely. New models and schedules are being considered; institutions are hedging their bets as if they foresee when a second “wave” (assuming we even characterize new cases as a wave) of the pandemic could hit. Scheduling courses of limited size and ensuring social distancing in residential halls, dining halls and activities are subjects for planning. The CDC has offered some guidance (quite generalized) as have others—individuals and organizations alike.

Despite these resources, everyone seemed to be fumbling around for reopening solutions for students, faculty and staff. What institutions are saying publicly and what they are feeling in privacy about the reality of reopening is not in concert. For example, some colleges still are running two-track planning: planning for online and planning for brick-and-mortar learning. And the idea here is that as the date for reopening approaches, both approaches will be ready to launch, depending on which is most suited to the moment.

And racial tensions ….

And then, racial tensions boiled over and as of this writing, have not ceased. Street protests—peaceful and non-peaceful—highlight anger, centuries in the making, at the lack of equality in our nation. With police gunning down or kneeing down minority men, police departments almost everywhere are coming under fire, including campus police forces. Folks are asking if we should even have police forces (on and off campus) as we knew them or should we defund and restart with new structures, new goals, new training, new personnel? All of these issues are boiling over as reopening plans are being crafted.

For some students, already worried about starting college online or in some newly designed format with no track record, a gap year seems like an idea with credibility. With the protests and racial tensions, the idea of using a gap year to focus on advocating for racial justice becomes increasingly appealing and, in fact, a worthy alternative to a bumpy college start. This happened in the 1960s too.

For colleges, the responses to racial tension are a critical issue for the fall, with or without brick-and-mortar reopening. Consider how campuses will need to adjust to and handle protests and ensure both freedom of speech and safety? What changes will campuses make to recognize their own histories of racism and some of their current approaches that fail to reflect the need for racial equality?

In this context, I am reminded of the disconcerting encounters (via email and then in person) of house masters at Yale and students residents about types of Halloween costumes that passed muster even if offensive to some. The net result was that the master and his wife ceased being house masters at the time and stopped teaching the next semester. We can debate how the story got such traction and how it ended; some of us still can’t quite believe that a valued and respected faculty member, with deep experience, behaved in such a disrespectful manner.

A salvation strategy

In reflecting on the myriad of issues just described in all their complexities, I read a recent tweet from professor Susan Dynarski, a well-respected professor who regularly comments insightfully on issues in higher education. In the context of her concerns about campuses reopening and the reasons higher education institutions may be so keen on brick-and-mortar courses (they want the money), she suggested that perhaps the only places where COVID safety and education can coexist are rural small college campuses.

Bells went off in my head. She is largely right and those of us who have spent time thinking about these campuses can attest to their ability, with innovative thinking and bold leadership, to respond to COVID and offer in-person education. Here are some concrete approaches, including references to the plans of Degrees of Freedom to open on the Marlboro College campus in September 2020. Yes, a new college opening during the pandemic.

Three important notes before turning to concrete ways small campuses can operate effectively and safely and with deep change:

First, some larger campuses can try some or even the majority of the ideas proffered here. And they may be able to do so with success but their efforts will not be easy or cheap or natural extensions of prior approaches. What small colleges offer is experience.

Second, the items identified are not in order of importance and there is some inevitable overlap in solutions and approaches. For many, starting with academics seems right. For me, focusing on land and what can be done on it and with it is a better starting point. And don’t misunderstand me; land is not more important than learning. Land (and its use) is what in a COVID-19 era makes real learning (broadly defined) possible.

Third, the ambiguity in the title to this article is intended: The pandemic will be a savior for small colleges because small colleges may be the only safe places in which quality in-person education can happen.

A sampling of how small rural colleges could adapt

Land. The pandemic has struck both urban and rural environments and the idea that rural communities are immune from COVID-19 is just not accurate. And the impact on rural places—with their lack of resources—can be worse for patients than urban sites. So just reopening in rural environments is not the answer.

To be sure, we seem to know less each day as new information and data surface. But rural small college campuses often sit on hundreds of acres, meaning there is a legitimate way to create a COVID-free bubble-like environment. Note that the NBA is trying a similar bubble approach in Orlando. It is too early to know whether this approach will create herd immunity.

To add to the benefits of new ways to use large plots of rural land, we now have community-by-community data on COVID-19 cases; and, when we plumb the data, there are small towns where the pandemic has not invaded or has invaded minimally. If you eliminate nursing homes from the calculations and people who were affected over the age of 75, there are communities with low incidence of COVID.

For this article, let’s focus on campuses with at least 25 acres of open land that is usable—land without buildings or sports fields or parking lots.

Access to healthcare. Now, an immediate reopening concern and question with the idea of remote/rural environments: Were the pandemic to come to campus, how would the students get healthcare? We need to focus, then, on reopening campuses that have hospitals within close proximity and ways nearby smaller hospitals connect to larger hospital networks. Take, for instance, a college in or near Bennington, Vermont. The town has an established hospital that has partnered with Dartmouth’s well-known medical facilities; there is even a helipad to transport ill patients from Bennington to Hanover in minutes. Literally.

Small colleges reopening in rural settings need a partnership with the nearest and best medical facility, ideally one with transport and easy access to larger health facilities. This will matter to the families of students who may think rural means absence of access to quality medical care. Based on conversations with Seth Andrew, the founder of Degrees of Freedom, this is the precise approach they are planning when they open on the Marlboro campus. And we are talking here not about reopening an existing college, but rather opening a new college in the era of COVID.

One critical and too often-ignored part of healthcare is mental health, a critically important topic in our COVID and race-tense world. Trauma and its symptomology abound and campuses need to become trauma responsive, something in which they have little or no training and experience. The social distancing, the omnipresence of death and dying, experienced discrimination and harassment, separation based on going off to college for the first time and in uncertain times—these are all tough issues.

We need to question whether our current campus mental health personnel are sufficient and how we can meet the inevitable needs of students. (Faculty and staff will have their own needs in this regard with respect to primary and secondary and vicarious trauma.)

Several solutions emerge: faculty and staff development in trauma responsiveness before students arrive on campus and thereafter; telemental health opportunities for all campus personnel; and added hiring of social workers or counselors. We need trauma-informed orientations for all returning and new students; these should not be one-off events but ongoing efforts to process the transition to college and the world around us.

These are not all cost-free solutions but they are critical to student academic and psychosocial success. It is not enough for students to survive; they need to thrive.

Activities. A rural environment also allows for a series of non-academic activities that can be done safely and provide important avenues for student engagement with social distancing well in place. Hikes in the woods, classes held outdoors (during certain seasons), activities on outdoor fields. Learning about nature, the environment, drawing and painting and writing outdoors could all happen with ease and social distancing.

Imagine an outdoor movie theater or outdoor concerts, with music blasting across the acreage. And picture an artistic way of creating social distancing that builds off the “wrapping” approaches of the recently deceased installation artist Christo. Picture many brightly colored mats, each 6 –8 feet apart, placed across a huge lawn. If one took a drone photo of the area, it would like painted spots on an enormous lawn—signaling color and festivity!

Then consider a return to “old-fashioned” games like bocce and croquet and even putting golf courses with 6 holes. Think about beanbag tosses done with teams. Picture single person ping-pong and tennis. These can all be done in wide-open spaces, created at little cost.

In terms of more “formal” and traditional sports (and one hopes the NCAA will see the light and allow for fewer official sports in DI, DII and DIII during this time without colleges risking eligibility), think about track and field, with staggered race starts. Think about golf. Think about tennis. In some rural communities, these resources are available and could be cleaned and dedicated to a college’s use.

Think about swimming or sailing or kayaking (instead of more expensive sculling) if a campus has access to water close by. Indeed, many rural campuses have their own ponds, often not used in the past for student activities. But they could be converted to student use. I am thinking about the pond at Smith College (to be sure, not a small rural college as defined here); the pond was once the place where Smith students got engaged. Now, it could be populated with small single person pedal boats.

Housing. Consider residential halls that can provide only single rooms with toilets shared among very small numbers of students. Yes, there is some risk in common areas (more on that in a minute) but small campuses can function with only single-room occupancy. For example, Southern Vermont College, were it still in existence, could have housed well over 300 students in single rooms.

An added option, well worthy of consideration, is building yurts to install on a campus for housing. Imagine small yurts dotting the campus landscape. And the creation of toilet facilities would come at a cost but not excessive (there are even portable toilet/shower trailers). And the facilities could be limited to small numbers of students accessing them. Some students would find living in a yurt or pod appealing and adventurous.

Another option to consider is motels that dot rural college communities and must currently be struggling with occupancy. These can be single-occupancy units with individual bathrooms, something that may appeal to parents and caregivers who think their students would be safer at home or in off-campus housing with one roommate. One can only assume that motels would be more than willing to partner for these purposes; indeed, Southern Vermont College partnered with such a motel close to campus during a short-term housing shortage.

One additional option to consider and one being used by Degrees of Freedom: short stints on a campus (say two weeks) several times a year rather than a semester-long session (even if compressed). The idea is that while on campus during these residential stays, no one goes on or off campus. Students would be tested pre-arrival and then “bubbled” thereafter. Others are pondering even shorter stays on campus with hybrid learning using the same faculty to do the in person and online learning—all options worth considering.

Food Service. Large dining halls and buffets are out. So are crowded dining tables. But on a small campus, especially one with several cooking facilities, there could be dining areas and shifts. Consider different eating times or outdoor eating or take out, just the way some restaurants are now doing now.

Imagine food service delivery carts driving around a campus. Add in an ice cream truck that goes from area to area within the campus boundaries.

There could be food cooking that is then shared consistent with social distancing. Several students could prepare a meal with a recipe from a particular culture and distribute the meals across campus. Then another group would cook something from another nationality. In some communities, different families make enough food to share on a designated weeknight; then, they talk about the different meals they are receiving and sharing online. Call it once-a-week dining together, so to speak. There could be baking contests and tastings of various sorts. There are many variations on these themes.

In the right environment, there could be food gardens. We have edible schools; why not create edible colleges? And unused grown food or food prepared in the just described manner could be distributed (safely) to low-income families to seniors who are housebound or unable to cook.

All of this can be boiled down to this notion: Campus Meals on Wheels.

One added idea to deal with seating that complies with social distancing, picture Adirondack chairs, perhaps painted in the college colors, that are linked together by rope that knots them at seven-foot intervals. Having abundant space makes this possible. Imagine 12 connected chairs. They could be configured into the circle or a “U” shape or a line. These Adirondack chairs could be brought inside when the weather shifts with dining in large open indoor spaces like gyms. See this image for a sense of the vitality of these chairs. This idea that can be used in academic settings as well.)

Academics. Small campuses regularly have small classes. Having class sizes under 15 is the norm. And it would be possible to break larger classes on a small campus into sections, perhaps with an online lecture/discussion and then breakout groups without any change. Classrooms are right-sized for this now without any adjustments.

Support services, if needed, could be provided with individualized online access to meet these needs. Think the support equivalent of telehealth appointments.

Materials used in courses could be open-access resources so students wouldn’t need to buy books in a store or online. As such, there would not be concerns about sharing materials and viral transmission on surfaces. Colleges would not need to run a bookstore (often not a money maker). Other course materials could all be purchased or available online for free through the web. Faculty assignments could be tailored to online free resources.

Faculty (since most small colleges do not use teaching assistants other than more advanced students to serve as tutors or mentors) could meet individually with students in open environments, not closed-in offices. These could be in open spaces with few people nearby. On a rural campus with huge open spaces and places, this approach is feasible.

Two added academic-related ideas to test out during this period.

First, students (and faculty and staff) could document the entire range of campus COVID responses. They could photograph activities and classes; they could tape interviews; they could write stories and reports. In other words, the COVID responsiveness would, in and of itself, be an academic activity. What is gathered could be used to help other campuses; it could document history; it could engage students in what is truly an extraordinary period in American history; students could get copies of some document/report/visual product that they could have for decades to come. Like the academic equivalent of a home run ball from Babe Ruth.

Second, efforts to help the local community could be front and center of a campus’s focus. Courses could be designed to provide assistance to those within the community, whether that is food or tutoring or conversation. Consider these empathy-generating courses. There could also be appropriate campus-community activities where the community virtually engages with students, say, a musical performance or a shared movie.

One final idea within the academic arena: What if faculty and students took a free online course together? Picture a course not offered by the small college but credit worthy and available from another institution and, critically, of considerable interest. Suppose it was a course on pandemics through time or public health approaches to disease spread and control or a course on the history of protest movements in the U.S. and abroad. (Yes, these could be offered on campus if there are experts in these fields with the courses ready for fall 2020.) Then faculty and students could do the work together; call it collaborative learning where the learners are teachers and the teachers are learners. In-person discussions would accompany the online course. On-campus faculty could design assignments and do grading.

Maintaining the bubble. Instead of cars on campuses (which would be disallowed), there could be daily runs by the college personnel to food stores, drug stores and Walmart-like places. Students could submit lists of what they want and need. Then, these items could arrive back on campus and students could retrieve (and pay for) what they ordered. This would work with privacy respected.

Picture a car lot off campus so that students could access in emergencies or at the end of short semesters. But the key is that the cars could not come to campus and students could not exit campus. In many rural communities, there is actually no place to go within easy walking distance. So the campus has to create the access to needed products (in addition to online resources) and the engagement options.

Students, faculty, staff and administrators would all be required to wear masks, even though some might question their necessity. The idea is that they are needed because faculty and staff and administrators likely live off campus and need health checks daily to return to campus. Or, for willing employees, there could be on-campus housing provided for them and their families.

The life outside the bubble of faculty, staff and administrators does present risk. They may have children or partners who become infected from schools and workplaces and other types of engagement. I think we have to rely here on responsibility and decency and the collective, shared effort to enable safety coupled with innovation and creative learning and engagement.

Input channels. This article is a sampling of the initiatives a rural small college could advance if it reopened in fall 2020 or January 2021. But there are critical ways to generate further ideas, namely getting input from faculty, staff, students and alums. These could be in response to particular COVID issues that arise or they could be ideas that individuals have. This is a call for innovation and creativity and engagement.

Ponder shared solutions to hygiene. Ponder germ lotion distribution at set locations in creatively designed stands. Ponder rules for what happens if students do not social distance (or faculty/staff and administrators for that matter). Ponder new ways to engage across campus. Ponder courses that would have new importance in this era of COVID.

Communications. If ever there were a time for quality, transparent, truthful communications, it would be when a college prepares for and then reopens and progresses through a semester. This communication would be directed to those on campus. It would also need to include outreach to alums, parents/caregivers and the community. Communication with other campuses, accreditors and employers would also be needed.

We need to use different channels: emails; social media; phone (as in talking); webinars and call-in numbers. A hotline makes sense too.

For this to work, the communicators need to wear a different headset from that to which they are accustomed. Words, tone, style, content matter more than ever. Trauma-responsive terminology, psychological sensitivity, cultural sensitivity are all critical components of a COVID-era communications plan.

When the world is filled with confusion and uncertainty and instability and frequent events that rattle even the most stable individuals, we need outreach that is calming, accurate and forthright. No dancing around issues; no avoidance of hard topics; no pretending all is as it was.

Just imagine the inverse of communications now and one can get a sense of what is needed.

Creativity, innovation and risk modulation

For those of us who care about education, small colleges and student success, the pandemic may be the needed opening for enabling these institutions to remain a part of the educational landscape.

We are living in times where the old ways can’t and don’t and won’t work. Being small, with quality leadership, enables fast, nimble and creative approaches. The risk of reopening for small colleges isn’t all that great given that their very livelihood is in question.

Change in education is notoriously slow. We are wed to what we have done and what has gone on for decades or centuries before the world changed. It would be absurd to suggest that small colleges needed the pandemic and racial tensions to survive. But it is fair to say that we shouldn’t let a crisis (actually many crises) go to waste. They may just be a way to save some of our small colleges and enable in-person education to proceed in fall 2020. It might be a way to enable student success and implement changes that actually stick because they work.

The risk is in not doing anything. We can’t afford that now. In a world of uncertainty, of this I am sure: Education needs to change, and small colleges can be a big part of the solution.

Karen Gross is former president of Southern Vermont College and senior policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Education. She specializes in student success and trauma across the educational landscape. Her new book, Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door: Solutions and Strategies for Educators, PreK-College, was just released in June 2020 by Columbia Teachers College Press.



One Response to “For Some Small Colleges, the Pandemic Could Sadly Be Their Savior”

  1. Theodora J. Kalikow

    This is an excellent article with many creative ideas for small rural colleges. As the former president of one of these (UMF), I can say that it sparks off many more ideas! Way to go, Karen Gross! The paper is another indication that the NEBHE Journal has really become one of the best sources for higher education news and views!


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