Next month, colleges across the country will start fall semester, and most will be holding it online. Students had hoped that they could return to campus for in-person classes, perhaps in a shortened semester before an expected “second wave” of COVID-19 infections. However, with the pandemic spreading faster than ever in hot spots including Florida, Texas, California and Arizona, it looks likely that most students will be learning online, whether at home or in a dorm.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, at press time, three in five colleges are still preparing to hold in-person classes. A tenth are planning for online courses, a quarter are proposing a hybrid solution, and the remainder are undecided. However, in light of the ever-expanding COVID-19 outbreak, the numbers are shifting. Last week, the University of Southern California and Hampton University both reversed their decisions to invite undergrads back to campus this fall, and will now hold almost all classes online. On Monday, Harvard did the same.
Business Insider reports that Georgetown, Yale and MIT have also announced online semesters for most or all students. UT Austin, Rice, Boston University, University of Michigan, Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern, Duke, University of Chicago, NYU, Penn, UCLA, UC Berkeley and Stanford are planning hybrid models. University of Washington, Brown, Cal Tech, Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Princeton plan to announce their decisions soon. Cornell is one of the few prominent universities to stick with plans for an in-person semester, at least through Thanksgiving, at which time students will finish the semester online.
Online coursework poses numerous challenges for students and their families. How will students access online classes if they don’t have computers, high-speed Internet and a quiet place to learn? Are they still expected to pay full freight (or close to it), if they aren’t getting the full college experience? (So far, the answer is usually “yes.”) Are students who are living on campus, often one person to a room, expected to stay in that room and attend classes online? (Again, so far, “yes.”) Will there still be football and other NCAA and intramural sports, and if so, how can student-athletes safely participate?
While colleges, students and their families wrestle with these questions, there’s plenty that brands can do to help:
*Enable online access. Brands should shift resources away from traditional experiential marketing (concerts, football games, spring break, etc.) and toward helping students learn online. This includes getting them the necessary hardware and software to take courses online; providing them with platforms to stay connected with professors and classmates; and also allowing them to establish a safe, comfortable “nest” from which they can live and learn.
*Provide virtual internships. Just as courses are shifting online, so are internships. Most employers will probably keep their office-based workforces remote through at least the end of the year. These companies should continue their internship programs and make them virtual, which would have the added benefit of promoting greater diversity and wider access.
*Help re-engineer the on-campus experience. Colleges will need all the help they can get hosting students this fall. What does a student meal program look like when cafeteria lines and buffets pose a health risk? How can dorms be kept safe and sterile? How do schools manage the logistics of operating a campus at limited capacity? Brands in every category from QSR to CPG to tech must lend their know-how to make it work, and enable students and educators to feel safe and supported.This fall, everybody will be learning together, in real time, how to remake the education system in “the time of Covid.” The quickest learners stand the best chance of advancing to the head of the class.