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Pandemic-stung Delaware colleges seek campus return

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Contending with a statewide drop in undergrad enrollment last fall and preparing to continue hybrid classes this spring, Delaware college presidents are weighing what the future looks like for higher education once the COVID-19 vaccine is widely distributed.

A teacher professor from Delaware Technical Community College instructs a biological sciences lab.

Del Tech has limited in-person classes to labs, and even then classes are further split into sections to give time to sanitize equipment. Enrollment at the state’s only community college dropped about 9%, slightly under the national average. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DEL TECH

One thing is for certain: classes will not look like they did in February 2020.

“These things that we’re doing won’t go away any time soon,” Delaware Technical Community College President Mark Brainard said. “I don’t know when we’ll go back to in-person, but hopefully we’ll be back in-person this time next year. I’ll just say this, you don’t serve students and stakeholders very well if you create unreasonable expectations unnecessarily.”

Dr. Mark T. Brainard

Mark Brainard President of Delaware Technical Community College

The vaccine may spark early hope of returning students on campus, but Delaware’s colleges are opting to remain in a hybrid model this spring semester. Delaware State University has 70% of its resident students living on campus, but will keep 75% of its classes online. The University of Delaware is raising residential hall capacity to 60% for students, with one student per dorm room. Meanwhile, Goldey-Beacom College has 153 students living on campus — 44% of its residential occupancy — and conducting a hybrid of in-person and remote learning.

DSU has no plans to increase in-person classes this school year, but it will re-evaluate the decision for fall 2021. Del Tech’s classes are online, except for labs that are now broken up into sections to sanitize equipment between groups. UD has slightly raised face-to-face classes from 8% in the fall to 16% in the spring semester.

“Hopefully, we can gradually raise that through the year as the vaccine becomes widely available. It’s extremely important to have that face-to-face interaction, since it’s also about holistic development of the student,” UD President Dennis Assanis said. “On campus, it’s about students growing — socially, emotionally, mentally — together. It’s an incredibly dynamic picture, but health and safety of our community will be our No. 1 priority.” 

In Pike Creek, Goldey-Beacom College has committed to doing more in-person learning “when it is safe to do so,” but it will also start entering the online college market with recent approval for the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. This likely will be a slow start, beginning with graduate courses, and college officials are considering which would best translate to that format. 

Colleen Perry Keith
President of Goldey-Beacom College

“We’re also looking at lending our psychology program to a flex format so students can remote in,” Goldey-Beacom College President Colleen Perry Keith said. “We did very well in the northeast corridor in the past, when we look at our footprint. But we can really start to recruit from a national audience, as we know what programs are of interest and choose the right ones to get the enrollment that’s right for us.”

In the early days of the pandemic, colleges and universities across the state were forced into online learning and some were ahead of the curve. DSU’s initiative to give a Macbook or iPad to every first-time student helped move classes online within a week, and Goldey-Beacom College’s pre-recorded online tutorials helped get students and professors up to speed. 

“The faculty is going on their own time to engage students, so they feel like they’re participants in learning, rather than listening and reacting,” Brainard said. “I see our workplaces changing a lot. We’re always going to have that in-person instruction. But I also feel that when this technology can be used to maximize opportunities for our students and our faculty, we’re going to continue to use it.”

DSU President Tony Allen envisions the pedagogy of higher education shifting dramatically after the pandemic. Namely, the image of lecture halls packed with students may look a little less crowded once colleges have introduced technology.

“Two years ago, we made the decision to be a more digital campus by 2020. By the time of the pandemic, we moved 1,700 in-person classes online within days. I do think we can learn something from the moment we’re in,” Allen said. “In higher ed, I think we can be slow to learn that. But we are advancing.”

Tony Allen
President of Delaware State University

It remains to be seen how an online class philosophy will hit colleges’ enrollment and, in turn, their finances. First-time enrollment has dropped about 13.1% at American colleges and universities. Higher education lost an estimated 400,000 students this fall.

 Enrollment at public two-year colleges dropped 10.1% while public four-year colleges increased 0.2%, buoyed by grad school enrollment, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

Delaware follows that trend. Goldey-Beacom College budgeted for a 15% drop in tuition revenue, but new full-time undergraduate students were down 18.8% compared to the fall of 2019. DSU’s first-time undergraduates were down 4% while UD’s fell 10%. Wilmington University declined Delaware Business Times’ request for enrollment figures.

It’s not clear whether these students are opting out of college temporarily or entirely, but some of Delaware’s smaller institutions saw gains in returning students. Goldey-Beacom estimates that 78% of first-year students returned for their second year, while DSU reported a 9% bump in continuing students. 

UD reported a 5% drop in returning sophmores, but Assanis believes that financial anxiety may cause students to pause their education. 

“The economic realities can be very hard, but that is precisely why we decided to offer students who paid tuition for 12 credits to carry that over to winter and summer session,” he said, noting the $25 million cost of the program. “It was the right thing to do to help students stay on track.”

DSU reported graduate enrollment actually grew by 30%. Goldey-Beacom saw a slight drop in its graduate program notably through international students but students enrolled in the doctorate in business administration went up 28%.

“When we had to make that pivot, they got used to it and now they know what to expect,” Perry Keith  said. “While we did lose some students, there were some who were committed to their education and connected, so they may have not seen a reason not to continue, especially with our price point.”

Lower enrollment translates to fewer tuition dollars, which could leave colleges in a crunch when budgets were strained by the pandemic. UD laid off 122 staff members and imposed salary reductions while taking $100 million from its endowment to head off a $250 million deficit. Meanwhile, Goldey-Beacom increased the budget for the William A. Franta Hall and renovations to its student center to $32.5 million, with additional costs for other facility needs on campus.

DSU did not have to lay off staff, but a record-setting $40 million in fundraising and $27 million research portfolio also helped stave off financial difficulties. The university is forging ahead with its merger with Wesley College in Dover, aided by some of the $20 million donation from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. But Allen hopes that President Joe Biden a longtime friend and Vice President Kamala Harris, a Howard University grad, will also help put DSU and other historically Black colleges and universities on the map.

“I think there’s already a Harris bump for HBCUs, and I also think the president will want to change things, like getting more HBCUs in the Carnegie classification for research universities and Pell grants,” Allen said. “I’m hopeful that in a post-COVID world, we can continue to have these human interactions, no matter what it may look like.”

Even though Goldey-Beacom is now turning to a digital future, Perry Keith believes there will still be a place for a four-year college experience, even though some colleges may turn to mergers to survive the pandemic’s financial fallout.

“Four-year colleges are pretty ingrained in our traditions, but colleges are going to have to address what they see in the marketplace and student needs,” she said. “There are some colleges that are offering a month format for courses, instead of session formats. It all depends on what the clientele tells us.”

The president of Delaware’s largest university sees technology as a valuable tool moving forward, but not a complete replacement for the college experience.

“I think this will provide more opportunities to hire more people to work remotely. Faculty members are already finding ways to use it for demonstrations,”Assanis said. “But the college experience is unparalleled. People clearly want to be together and grow together, and not just in a classroom.”


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