Can Universities Really Stay Open This Fall?

3 lessons from psychological science for fall 2020 campus re-opening.

Posted Jun 27, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally altered the ways in which higher education functions in the U.S. Rapid shifts in the spring semester left administrators, instructors, students, and staff alike scrambling to find the best solutions in an almost unprecedented situation. As the fall 2020 semester quickly approaches, it feels as though planning for re-opening remains fluid and unclear.

Many universities are planning to come back for full in-person instruction, with a variety of approaches to meet COVID-19 prevention guidelines. These efforts persist in spite of recently documented faculty and student concerns about their safety and well-being. Universities are even seeking protections from liability for exposing campus community members to the virus.

The debate continues: Will fall 2020 operations remain in-person? Numerous questions persist if we reopen: How can faculty and administrators ensure student adherence to physical distancing, mask-wearing, and other prevention guidelines? Are campus residential operations realistic in light of spacing needs? Will college football and other sports return and complete their schedules?

Psychological science offers some insight for what we can anticipate becoming influences on reopening and remaining in-person throughout the fall.

1. Young adults may be difficult to wrangle. Two decades ago, Jeffrey Arnett wholly changed the way in which psychologists view young adults. With his 2000 article, Emerging Adulthood: A Theory of Development From the Late Teens Through the Twenties, Arnett reframed how we understand the contemporary college student. His later books continued to reshape how universities needed to think about those they serve. As a result, emerging adulthood has become its own domain of scientific inquiry.

Arnett argued that, in western nations, age 18 to 25 constitutes its own transitional phase from adolescence to adulthood. Understanding the modern college student (and their non-college going counterparts) is not that simple, however. Arnett’s theory, and following research, paints a picture in which emerging adults actively explore life's offerings – in intimacy, career interest, and socio-political beliefs. They do so through high agency and search for identity. Emerging adulthood also tends to be marked by heightened impulsivity, narcissism, and other characteristics relevant to the COVID-19 discussion. As a result, emerging adults frequently engage in considerable risky behavior.  

Helena Lopes/Unsplash
Emerging adults being emerging adults.
Source: Helena Lopes/Unsplash

Placed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the return to campus life, impulsivity, search for meaning, perceived invincibility, and tolerance for risk may be a deadly combination. Students may feel emboldened to challenge public health precautions: How can universities enforce mask-wearing among students? Notable behavior patterns in socializing and drinking are likely to compound the problem, raising the threat of campuses becoming vectors for spreading the virus.

Clearly, developmental science has something to say in warning of the potential challenges of bringing students back to campus during this time.

2. Parents will have much to say. Parents of college students will likely have a strong voice in the persistence of on-campus operations. After all, higher education operates largely a customer-service model and parents are frequently the actual paying customer.

Helicopter parenting is particularly relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic and campus operation discourse. Generally speaking, helicopter parents are known to attempt to control every aspect of a child’s life. The negative impacts of such parenting on a college student’s mental health and social functioning are fairly well-documented.

Overly involved parents may demand the protection of, and the most convenient educational formats for, their children. Should such strong opinion emerge in the coming months, it is more likely that university instruction will shift back online.

Interestingly, an argument has been made that aligning with helicopter parents can be done in such a way as to mitigate student impulsive behaviors such as drinking. Creative engagement of parents by university administration may actually generate solutions to promote COVID-19 prevention adherence on campuses. This path, while promising, remains largely unexplored.

Harry Cunningham/Unsplash
COVID-19 prevention measures will be difficult to enforce.
Source: Harry Cunningham/Unsplash

3. Campus health initiatives were difficult to implement before COVID-19. Public health guidance for the prevention of COVID-19 has been put forth by federal and regional agencies and yet many states and municipalities struggle with implementation and community member adherence. Why would the same not be true for a college campus this fall?

Health-focused initiatives are notoriously difficult to implement on college campuses. My own team’s work in suicide prevention on campuses highlights challenges ranging from resource deprivation and outdated policies to lack of institutional knowledge and buy-in.  

A recent study from 10 U.S. and Canadian universities highlights some problems with implementing health initiatives. They include inconsistent definition and measurement of well-being, as well as varying levels of student/faculty engagement and hyper-focus on the individual level. This is not to say that campuses cannot succeed with health and wellness at all. But the rampant roadblocks prior to COVID-19 were clear. Layered with the additional challenges brought about by the pandemic, it is easy to see how campus health and wellness may fall by the wayside upon re-opening in the fall.

Will fall 2020 operations remain in-person? Likely not. In all, emerging adulthood science, evidence on helicopter parenting, and realities of implementing public health measures show a bleak outlook. Remaining fully open seems a significant hill to climb.

One is also left to wonder whether the nature of higher education itself will see a permanent paradigm shift. And all of the campus community must come together to adapt to the new realities of higher education.