News in Brief

By AGB    //    Volume 28,  Number 6   //    November/December 2020

Rising COVID-19 Cases After Fall Semester Starts 

COVID-19 cases are increasing in communities with college campuses. On college campuses themselves, there have been 130,000 cases and at least 70 deaths since the pandemic began, according to a New York Times survey of more than 1,600 American colleges and universities —including every four-year public institution and every private college that competes in NCAA sports. On September 25, 2020, the New York Times reported that more than 35 colleges have reported at least 1,000 cases over the course of the pandemic, and more than 230 colleges have reported more than 100 cases.

The virus is not just affecting the campuses themselves though—cases also seem to be rising in the communities in which college campuses are located. On September 25, 2020, Inside Higher Ed released an article detailing county-level COVID-19 case data and the complicated relationship between COVID-19 caseloads and colleges and universities reopening this fall. Their analysis was primarily based on data from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center and similar analyses by the Associated Press, USA Today, and “College Openings, Mobility, and the Incidence of COVID-19 Cases,” a working paper on medRxiv.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, researchers found U.S. counties containing colleges and universities were viral hot spots. Yet, after adjusting the number of residents in each county, Inside Higher Ed noted in the September 25 article that “counties without a college or university have actually been recording proportionally more new cases per day since the beginning of August than have counties with a college.”

The reports also showed county cases often rose in the immediate aftermath of campus reopenings, but occasionally decreased after colleges and universities shifted to virtual semesters or imposed strict quarantines. MedRxiv data indicated that between 1,000 and 5,000 cases across the United States are most likely attributable to campus reopenings in any capacity. “The cellphone data shows even when you’re not going all in-person for classes, you’re still moving people into that area,” said Kosali Simon, a professor at Indiana University and contributing author to the medRxiv working paper.

The Blame Game for COVID-19 Spikes on Campus 

New York Times survey of more than 1,600 U.S. colleges and universities revealed more than 51,000 COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Rising COVID-19 caseloads following fall campus reopenings are inciting heated debates within higher education over who is to blame for jeopardizing public health and safety on campus.

College administrators on reopened campuses are adopting strong punitive approaches to disciplining COVID-19 infractions and place the burden of responsibility for public safety on the students themselves. “The fate of the fall semester is in the hands of our students and many are stepping up to help lead our health and safety initiatives,” said Dannel Malloy, the chancellor of the University of Maine System, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education on August 21, 2020.

Vanderbilt University and Purdue University and other institutions that reopened in-person also focus on individual accountability and threaten students with harsh penalties for defying regulations (and in some cases, even criminal penalties). Katherine L. Sermersheim, the associate vice provost and dean of students at Purdue University, informed students on August 19, 2020: “If you don’t abide by rules, there is no place for you here.” On the same day, Vanderbilt students and families received a message from Chancellor Daniel Diermeier and Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan R. Wente, which warned that “flouting public health requirements in Nashville doesn’t just result in student conduct violations—it can carry real criminal penalties…[that] will follow students and derail their future chances for attending graduate, law, medical, nursing, and other professional schools or securing their dream jobs.”

While stringent rules on masks and social distancing may inspire hope for a safe fall semester, reopening colleges and universities still exacerbates our public health crisis and ignores prior warnings from adolescence and behavior experts about young adult behavior. Laurence Steinberg, a leading expert on adolescent behavior, told Inside Higher Ed on August 24, 2020, that the late-adolescent brain prioritizes “immediate rewards rather than long-term consequences.” Young adults’ unique need for socializing and wish for the “real” college experience, especially after months of quarantine, further drives their desire to break COVID-19 rules. “Eighteen-22-year-olds were the least likely age group to follow directions for preventing the spread of COVID-19,” reported Inside Higher Ed, and institutions crack down on students for large gatherings on and off-campus every day.

Viral videos of campus parties and students neglecting campus policies quickly devolved into arguments over who is ultimately to blame for rising COVID-19 cases on campus. “What’s happening on college campuses is a microcosm of what’s happening in this country, which is a deflection of responsibility from the top down to the individual,” said Julia L. Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

Is it essential for students to be in-person this semester and is it reasonable to expect radical changes in student behavior during a global pandemic? Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College, tweeted his opinion on such questions on August 21: “Dear administrators who are scolding students for messing up your ill-conceived plans: instead of blaming the students, perhaps we should analyze why you put them in that position in the first place.”

Countless students are not only disappointed in their peers for violating university public health guidelines, but also in administrators for mixed messaging and unclear COVID-19 guidelines. Kira Griffith, a student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (UNC), told Inside Higher Ed that she does not think blame falls entirely on students. According to Griffith, UNC’s Carolina Together pledge left “a lot of room to make a mistake” and she commented that “maybe it’s best for people to stay home.” UNC halted in-person classes just two weeks after reopening campus due to COVID-19 spikes.

NACAC Push for Test Optional for 2021-22 Admission Cycle 

COVID-19’s unprecedented disruption of the traditional business of standardized testing led 1,600 colleges and universities to waive testing requirements for 2020–21. In August, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) released a statement urging more than 100 institutions to go test-optional for the next admission cycle.

“The fundamental infrastructure upon which the college application process relies has largely been rendered inoperable due to health and safety concerns,” according to the NACAC statement. The College Board found that 46 percent of testing centers have closed while the remaining 54 percent are operating at significantly reduced capacity. The Washington Post reported millions of high school students were unable to take the SAT or ACT this year. Inequity in access to safe testing sites, affordable test preparation services, and individualized guidance from school administrators will continue well into 2021 and impact millions more testers.

NACAC recognizes that the extraordinary financial and public health burden of continuing to require tests for admission during the 2020–21 cycle will particularly overburden low-income and minority communities. “In this critical time, public colleges must be mindful of their founding purpose of serving students and families and recognize that lifting testing requirements in 2020–21 will be in the students’ best interest,” urged NACAC in the statement.

AAUP Recommendations on Contingent Faculty and the Global Pandemic 

On August 11, 2020, the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) Committee on Contingency and the Profession released “Contingent Faculty and the Global Pandemic.” This statement contains eight principles and recommendations to promote faculty advocacy during COVID-19.

According to the statement, AAUP condemns administrations’ removal of experienced contingent faculty. Their removal not only contradicts “the highest ideals of equity and justice espoused” by institutions, but also “undermines student learning conditions in the short term and the institution of higher education in the long term.”

Nontenure-track faculty and graduate student employees make up 70 percent of the teaching force but are rarely afforded basic employee benefits. AAUP argues contingent faculty deserve paid sick leave during COVID-19 and unemployment benefits.

AAUP also urges institutions to offer paid training for all faculty to ensure a smooth transition to online education this fall. As faculty pivot toward preparing dynamic remote instruction, they also deal with widespread cancellation of conferences and the closure of research facilities. Each of these changes contribute to disruption of traditional tenure time lines; AAUP recommends institutions suspend tenure clocks for a year.

Shared governance must also be expanded and “administrations should not take advantage of good faith cooperation by faculty,” according to AAUP’s statement. Such manipulation includes seizing intellectual property, refusing to defend contingent faculty whose intellectual property is used for political gain, and forcing contingent faculty to facilitate their replacement amid the pandemic.

“The future of the profession is at stake,” AAUP warned in the statement. “And the current situation will not be sustainable in the next academic year if changes are not made.”

Two HBCU Presidents Join COVID-19 Vaccine Trials 

On September 2, 2020, Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, and Reynold Verret, the president of Xavier University of Louisiana, announced their participation in the Ochsner Medical System’s Phase Three vaccine trials.

In their joint message, the presidents urged students, staff, faculty, and alumni of Dillard and Xavier universities to “consider participating in this trial or others being conducted” to “advance the cause for not just ourselves, but our sisters and brothers suffering from the effects of this virus on their families and communities.”

COVID-19 disproportionally impacts people of color, and Kimbrough and Verret hope increased participation of minority communities will ensure an eventual vaccine is proven effective on nonwhite Americans. Black physicians, scientists, and researchers concur with the presidents. Larry Graham, MD, a retired pulmonologist, told NBC: “Genetics related to racial differences make it essential that we be involved in broad-based and diverse clinical trials of medications and vaccines.”

Despite this encouragement, Kimbrough and Verret’s message was met with widespread skepticism because of the medical establishment’s historic exploitation of black people in unethical medical experiments.

The presidents’ letter briefly acknowledged African Americans’ long held distrust. “We remember the Tuskegee Syphilis Study… undermining trust in health providers and caretakers. Today, there are many regulations in place to assure the ethical execution of medical studies, including oversight by Human Subjects Committees.”

Nonetheless, a torrent of social media responses condemned the presidents’ message to their constituents. “Sorry, not using my child as a guinea pig. The Tuskegee experiment all over again,” commented Erika Smith on the Xavier University Facebook page. “This letter is an outrageous insult to our community,” another user agreed.

Alexis Ponder Calloway, MD, a 2004 Xavier graduate and emergency room physician, understands African American’s nuanced responses to the call to volunteer. “Given the severe impact of Covid-19 on communities of color, it is understandable to want and need involvement in vaccination trials to ensure the population is representative of everyone. It’s difficult, however, to reconcile targeted requirement” she told NBC. “Everyone should have the freedom to do their own research, ask questions, and decide if participation is desirable on an individual basis without outside influences.”

Kimbrough echoed Calloway’s push for individual choice and responded to critics in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education on September 21. “The letter was to tell people to consider participating. It’s not to tell them to do it. There aren’t enough African Americans participating in the trials. And the vaccine makers are saying we won’t know if the vaccine works for African Americans if you don’t have enough people in the trial.”

University of Pittsburgh Requires Anti-Black Racism Course for Freshmen 

The University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) is requiring first-year students to enroll in “Anti-Black Racism: History, Ideology, and Resistance” starting this fall.

The asynchronous, one-credit course is one of several Pitt initiatives to improve racial equity. “We have heard from our black students, as well as black faculty and staff, that our campus is not the safe, inclusive, and equitable place for all that we are committed to creating,” said Anne E. Cudd, the provost and senior vice chancellor, in a letter to the community.

According to the course syllabus, the multidisciplinary readings, lectures, and discussions “will introduce students to the established tradition of scholarship focused on the black experience and black cultural expression” in addition to examining “the development, spread, and articulations of anti-black racism.”

“We hope that this course is a first step in helping students recognize and challenge anti-black policies and practices when they encounter them, and to develop strategies to be anti-racist in their everyday lives,” said Yolanda Covington-Ward, the chair of Pitt’s Department of Africana Studies and leader of the 12-member committee that developed the course, as reported by the New York Daily News.

On August 24, Education Dive reported that Pitt’s anti-racism curriculum is part of a larger trend in higher education: The University of Colorado Boulder’s three new Coursera courses on anti-racism and the passage of Assembly Bill 1460, requiring all 23 California State University undergraduates to take an ethnic studies course.

Alisa Cooper, an English professor at Glendale Community College, told Education Dive that these one-off classes are a step in the right direction, but incorporating anti-racist pedagogies into every class is a far more effective method of enacting systemic change. “We have to convince (students) that these issues are important… and the best way to do that is to integrate these types of discussions and pedagogy into the regular courses,” she said.

LendEDU Publishes 2020 Report on Student Loan Debt 

On August 19, LendEDU, a national student loan firm, released its annual report, Student Loan Debt by School by State 2020. It provides an in-depth analysis of student loan debt statistics from hundreds of universities and colleges across the United States.

The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System estimates U.S. outstanding student loan debt is $1.67 trillion, and LendEDU’s 2020 report sheds light on the Class of 2019’s place within the American student debt crisis.

According to the report, the class of 2019’s average student loan debt per borrower was $29,076, but when including students with no student loans, the average 2019 graduate incurred $15,919 in student loan debt. LendEDU also found 54.75 percent of students graduated with debt from nonprofit four-year public and private institutions. Upon further examination, borrowers from public institutions graduated with $28,501 in student loan debt on average whereas borrowers from private institutions left with $31,556 on average.

LendEDU’s key findings for the class of 2019 include school-level and state-level statistics too. The average student loan debt per borrower ranged from as low as $2,825 at Bryn Athyn College of the New Church in Pennsylvania to a high of $65,401 at New York School of Interior Design in New York. On a state level, Utah has the lowest average student loan debt per borrower: $16,633 while Connecticut has the highest average: $41,579.

Of the 237 colleges with the highest student loan debt per borrower figures, LendEDU discovered 59.07 percent of the institutions were private and 40.93 percent were public. Of the 238 colleges with the lowest student loan debt per borrower figures, 66.81 percent of the colleges and universities were public, while 33.19 percent were private.

Experts are curious to see the impact of COVID-19 on the class of 2020’s report. Since LendEDU’s Student Loan Debt by School by State 2020 is released on a one-year delay, the class of 2020’s data will be published in fall 2021.

The owner of this website has made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion, please report any problems that you encounter using the contact form on this website. This site uses the WP ADA Compliance Check plugin to enhance accessibility.