CSU cancels most in-person classes this fall. Why this is a big deal

This afternoon, CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White announced that with limited exceptions, virtual-only learning will continue through the fall term.  This means that close to 500,000 students won't be returning to campus until 2021 at the earliest.  However, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Here's the announcement.

With planning well underway for fall term enrollment, we can expect that many other large institutions will follow suit shortly.  The current concerns about a second wave of COVID-19 this fall coinciding with the flu season is driving the decisions based on student and faculty safety.

This could be a big problem

Many institutions have already taken a significant hit in revenues (with costs remaining relatively constant).  Most of this is related to revenue sources outside of the classroom.

Right now, students continue to enroll and take classes to complete the current school year.  With the next academic year beginning with students taking classes away from campus (most often from their permanent home), this will change.

Hitting closer to home

Take, for example, freshmen and sophomores at 4-year institutions.  Much of their coursework is general education.  These are classes that are very similar in curriculum to those offered at community colleges at a much lower cost.

For many today, this is how getting a 4-year degree is affordable.  Students save money by staying at their parent's home and work while taking classes.  A 100% virtual curriculum begins to look a lot like this -- especially if the students don't have the same ability to meet in person with their classmates or professors as they would otherwise be able to do.

I've talked to a number of parents who are taking a hard look at this cost/benefit scenario -- especially those paying out-of-state tuition.  If students are going to be at their permanent home anyway, is it better for the student to attend classes at the local community college, collaborate with their neighbors, and save money now?  This will be the decision that many will be making this fall.  And, the costs to the institution could be staggering when the cost outweighs the benefit.

Take, for example, an institution with an average tuition of $12,000 per year with 500 students who decide to take their general education coursework elsewhere.  That's $6,000,000 of revenue that the institution will lose (not counting the ancillary revenue sources described above).  For large institutions, the numbers could be much larger.

Innovation will be key

For many of these institutions, their greatest asset are the quality of their instructors and students.  They will need to excel at leveraging those assets better than alternatives.  Coursework that is designed for in-person lectures needs to be moved online.  But, more importantly, to leverage their greater asset -- their people -- institutions must excel at bringing together students and professors to collaborate and learn together.

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