The highly contagious Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus strain is currently sweeping through the United States. As vaccinated and cautiously optimistic college administrators put the past three semesters behind them, there are growing concerns that vaccine skepticism and a more potent strain could hinder another enrollment term.
Mandatory Vaccinations and Masks
As of August 2021, nearly 700 colleges and universities require students or employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. As the world continues to track the Delta variant, guidelines may change. College students' safety and well-being and their families are the priority for most colleges, despite threats of class action residence life and remote learning lawsuits. This issue is so prevalent, even The New York Times is constantly tracking cases and updating changes for colleges and universities.
Virtual Test Assessment
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted college education from early 2020 through Fall 2021, but how long will those changes remain in place? From 100% at-home learning and limited, in-class hybrid models to virtual student exchange programs and study abroad, global institutions have been forced to adapt to change and educate their students in flexible, innovative ways. The end goal is to keep everyone on campus safe and healthy, but how are professors and administrators ensuring fair and ethical assessment evaluation with students studying and working from home? With the "new normal," is there a new measure of academic integrity and success?
Beginning in March 2020, secondary schools and colleges worldwide had a clear choice: Pivot to an online or hybrid model or risk shutting down the campus for good. The pandemic has changed college and university life in so many ways, and most of these students seem to appreciate this shift.
Not only this but today's student also wants flexibility. In Keystone Academic Solutions' State of Student Recruitment USA 2021, 37 percent of potential students said they were interested in the flexible or hybrid learning model. We might think that this is the first time a shift has happened, but the idea of modifying the traditional model has been happening in smaller geographic pockets long before "social distancing" and COVID-19.
Virtual Campus Tours
Colleges and universities can control the vaccination policy for current students and employees, but it can be challenging to place too many rules and restrictions on on-campus visitors. While data prove the vaccines are working, there is uncertainly around the Delta variant regarding transmission and vaccine prevention. Will a vaccinated student transmit the Delta variant to an unvaccinated visitor? Will a vaccinated visitor bring the Delta variant to campus while children are present during an after-school, elementary education program? Are all guests required to wear masks? Will visitors be directed to social distance?
The campus tour will always be a vital tool in college recruitment, but for safety reasons, more schools will push their virtual tour option for Fall 2021.
Advancements in technology, digital communication comfortability, and visit-from-home visits present many questions for virtual campus tours. What role will virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) play in the future of virtual tours? Can students expect a hybrid virtual experience while visiting campuses in person? Will video and production quality make or break college decisions soon? When will we start seeing 24/7 live streams of campus from a drone view?
One thing is for sure; prospective student preferences will continue to inform enrollment marketers' decision-making. As the world awaits the next big trend, there are some campuses to visit. Here is Princeton Review's list of Colleges and Universities That Offer Virtual Campus Tours.
Internship and Real-World Experience
What good is a college degree without any career preparation? Around the world, thousands of organizations were forced to cancel in-person internships due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it appears Fall 2021 may follow similar guidelines.
"Although some programs have returned in-person, they are doing so at a mostly reduced capacity with fewer interns and participants. This limited capacity means that these in-person programs will be more competitive than ever, so applicants should be sure to spend time and effort on their applications."
Christopher Rim, CEO, and founder of Command Education
Interns and their employers have maintained a mutually beneficial relationship through virtual and accelerated programs, but the "real-world" component of face-to-face interaction may not be available for a while.
Athletics, Events, and Clubs
College sports attract millions of fans and billions of dollars in revenue each year. After COVID-19 paralyzed college sports for nearly a year and a half, there is finally a plan in place. The NCAA set forth an 85% immunity benchmark for teams to reach. If 85% of student-athletes and athletics staffers achieve immunity through vaccination or prior infection, then masking and distancing are no longer necessary.
Clubs and organizations will operate on a case-by-case basis. It is unlikely that service-oriented clubs in local communities, adult homes, and daycares will return to the pre-pandemic format. Still, on-campus meetings, intramural sports, and campus events should be back on track wherever vaccination mandates are in place.
Study Abroad Programs
Until global vaccination rates significantly increase, study abroad, opportunities will be few and far between. Not only do countries need to watch out for their citizens, but universities also must protect their students. Colleges can require vaccinations for students studying abroad, but as the virus continues to mutate, there is no safety guarantee — presenting an unwanted risk for students (and their families).
Virtual Student-Staff Interaction
Now that students and their professors are Zoom pros, we may see more digital interactions than ever. Instead of meeting a professor in their office, students now feel more comfortable scheduling a screen-to-screen meeting. The same applies to Career Services, Academic Advising, and financial aid counseling.
The COVID-19 pandemic may appear far from over, but colleges and universities are putting forth their best effort to return to normalcy this fall. Higher education professionals are experts at adapting to change and finding solutions to modern challenges. Fall 2021 may not feel like Fall 2019, but compared to Fall 2020, we have witnessed dramatic improvements, safety precautions, innovative solutions, and community optimism. Embracing the new college experience is also on the table. The only cure-all insight is herd immunity worldwide, but in the meantime, it's progress before perfection.
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