COVID-19 causes higher education to adapt

April 22, 2020 | G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD – The commonwealth’s colleges and universities are facing uncharted territory as the semester ends and they begin preparing for a new class of students.

Reminder Publishing spoke to representatives of three institutions – one private, two public – about the challenges they are facing to continue their educational mission.

Dr. John Cook, the president of Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), said attempting to deal with the impact made on higher education by the pandemic has been “all consuming.”

He said, “The amount of planning with leadership has ramped up exponentially.”

The college has announced updates on its website,

Right now, STCC officials are going through the federal CARES Act to understand what assistance there is for students, Cook explained.

“All the help we can provide will be critical,” he added.

The commonwealth’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is developing various plans to cope with the pandemic and to help graduating seniors who have plans for college, Cook said.

“They [DESE] are demonstrating a maximum amount of flexibility,” he added.

In response, Cook said STCC will “be creative if needed one way or another if a student has been awarded a high school transcript.”

As a community college, STCC is a resource for people and Cook emphasized, “Families need all the support they can get.”

Cook said the college pushed back spring break in order to help faculty and delayed registration for a week for students.

“We didn’t want to postpone indefinitely,” he added.

What is STCC’s challenge as a school is how it can effectively make much of instruction have a successful transition from a real classroom to a virtual one, Cook noted.

“As a technical institution it really stretches what you can deliver online,” he said. He used an example the college’s healthcare programs, which have clinical components, as well as the engineering programs.

“You can only do so much,” he said.

People are now trying to assess the economic impact of the pandemic and Cook said with every economic downturn is an opportunity for families and students to look at higher education and what it can provide.

“Higher education is incredibly valuable at this time.” Cook said.       

Bryan Gross, VP for Enrollment Management and Marketing at Western New England University (WNEU), also said the level of uncertainty has affected the university’s plans and officials there have built in flexibility for both continuing students and incoming students.

He noted the university was trending to have an incoming Fall 2020 class of 875 students – “right on our goals” – but now any projections are “up in the air.” He added that no one in higher education can make any predictions about enrollment.

The university has implemented a number of measures, Gross said. WNEU extended the date for deposits form May 1 to June 1. With testing disrupted, the university has made the SAT and ACT optional for the incoming classes of Fall 2020 and Fall 2021. If high school students have taken a class pass/fail that will not count against them.

The university did a virtual accepted student day on April 5 and has assembled a library of videos about campus life and academics on its website, Gross added WNEU has launches a series of live panel discussions about different topic for students to “get a sense of the university community.”

The traditional two-day summer orientation will not take place as scheduled, Gross said, but will be presented virtually. The week before classes there will bean orientation for new students.

The university will be offering a discount for summer classes by reducing the $950 per credit cost to $400.

Understanding the graduating class this year has been greatly affected, Gross said WNEU will offer a waiver of fees for the first two courses if a 2020 WNEU graduate decides to continue his or her education with a Masters degree at the university.

“[Enrolled in a post-graduate program] delays entry into an uncertain job market and defers student loans,” Gross said.

Post-graduate students may be able to live on campus and participate in activities they missed as seniors, he added.

He noted the NCAA has extended a year of eligibility for seniors whose sports schedule was cancelled.

Gross said that a graduation date for the Class of 2020 has not been set as the students themselves do not want to establish a date only to have it changed.

Gross said the university is monitoring the pandemic and its effects on a weekly basis.

Rachel Rubinstein, Holyoke Community College's vice president of Academic and Student Affairs, said there are financial restrains students and institutions are both facing.  

“Community colleges, including ours, invested large sums of money in, for instance, laptops and hotspots to distribute to students who did not have access to technology to enable remote learning. In addition, we are experiencing a loss in revenue because students are unable to continue paying their bills. Community college students are experiencing the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19 in very dramatic ways. They are both more likely to have lost their jobs, and also more likely to be in essential jobs that they cannot perform from home. They are more likely to be parents, and to have unreliable internet access. All these things impact their capacity to continue in school and to pay for housing, groceries and childcare. A slower economic recovery will have long-lasting effects on our student population,” she said.

Like other colleges, much of the class offerings have moved online at HCC.

Rubinstein explained, “Our summer offerings have moved online for the most part, and while we hope to resume face to face instruction in the fall, we have to have flexible teaching plans in place. It could be that only 50 percent of the class can be in the classroom at a time, with the other half participating remotely. It could be that we start out face to face, and experience frequent disruptions where we have to move to remote learning for a few weeks at a time (or the other way around). Our health programs, with their emphasis on hands-on clinical training, are particularly challenged: if we cannot train our students in clinical settings, the whole health industry will suffer.

COVID-19 may affect enrollment rates at HCC, as well.

“Community college enrollment is historically counter cyclical to the economy. Recessions and high unemployment usually lead to increases in enrollment. So, like most community colleges nationwide, we have been experiencing enrollment declines for the last few years. But this recession might not be typical of those in the past. It could be that the Covid-19 crisis accelerates declining enrollment, so that instead of experiencing a 5-10 percent enrollment decline for the next couple of years, we experience a 10-15 percent decline (or worse),” she said.      

Rubinstein added, “We could see large numbers of prospective students deciding to put off higher education altogether. Alternatively, we could see large numbers of prospective students deciding to go to community college instead of more expensive, four year options, in which case we could experience a surge. We have to prepare for either possibility.”

Westfield State University has not announced plans for the fall semester and did not respond to a request for comment as of press time. The university did announce recently its plans to host the first session of its summer programming online.

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