2020 has been a crapshoot for colleges amid the coronavirus pandemic, with few bright spots amid community outbreaks in university towns and sharp declines in enrollment.
The pandemic is “the biggest crisis that the world has faced since the Second World War, and it’s probably the biggest crisis higher education has faced ever,” Vanderbilt Chancellor Daniel Diermeier, who has overseen the Nashville school’s largely successful handling of reopening campus for the fall semester, told Yahoo Finance in a wide-ranging interview. “It will be a period of disruption and tremendous volatility.”
Vanderbilt has managed to avoid coronavirus transmission during the fall semester. Between September 28 and October 4, only 29 of the 6,733 tested for COVID-19 were positive — a 0.43% positivity rate. That’s in stark contrast to many other schools that have been reporting thousands of cases and high positivity rates.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Elliot Choy, a Vanderbilt student who has documented his life on campus through YouTube, told Yahoo Finance. “Part of it is what the campus has set in place in terms of policies, in terms of guidelines and rules, but also, the students have to take it pretty seriously.”
The last day of in-person learning at Vanderbilt is November 20, after which online instruction commences.
Diermeier, who used to work at the University of Chicago, stepped into this role in December of last year and happens to be a crisis management expert.
Vanderbilt’s strategy against coronavirus transmission primarily involves working with public health authorities, mandating social hygiene guidelines, testing students weekly, “urgent” emails if students miss an appointment, and contact tracing when an infection is identified.
While hygiene, testing, and tracing is a universally known playbook against he virus, the execution of that plan requires resources in addition to determination and organization.
“Financially, Vanderbilt is one of the strongest universities in the country,” Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, told Yahoo Finance. “I don’t spend any time worrying about them.”
About 50% of Vanderbilt students are living on campus for the fall, 35% off campus, and 15% remote. The school owns a hotel that it used to quarantine students, and the university’s nursing school helps with testing and tracing.
“We were basically able to accommodate all first year students that wanted to live in single rooms,” Diermeier noted.
He also said that the most crucial lesson came from another private college: Notre Dame.
“Like us, and like a few other private universities, they were very committed to bringing the students back and having in-person education,” Diermeier said. But “because they were earlier than everybody else in some sense, you could learn from them — that all very, very educational. It shows you that even if things break out of control, we can put people in shelter and place orders, basically a quarantine, and then you can come out again.”
Vanderbilt wasn’t completely unaffected: Diermeier said that the school lost at least $20 million in revenue amid the pandemic. Nevertheless, the college was able to avoid layoffs and delay retirements.
“It’s not that there was no impact for us, but what we were able to do is we were able to very quickly get some cost containment,” Diermeier noted.
Choppy waters ahead
Some colleges across the country are worried about survival.
At Vanderbilt, the school hasn’t seen a large enrollment decline, but there is still pressure to remain competitive. And offering a high quality education to students is one way to differentiate.
Diermeier asserted that “we’re not talking enough about the value of education” since there is a “cost” of not being on campus. And by bringing students back to campus in a safe way, the school can weather the storm. Diermeier also noted that the “desire for undergraduate students to be part of a residential learning community is very deep and very profound.”
To that point, internet access is a chronic issue for thousands of students in Tennessee. The federal government has tried to remedy this problem with the United States Department of Agriculture investing nearly $10 million to “provide broadband service in unserved and underserved rural areas in Tennessee.” About 7.9% of the students who enrolled in 2019 at Vanderbilt were from rural high schools.
At the same time. Diermeier also saw the need to beef up online offerings as the pandemic continues to limit in-person instruction for many students.
“Everybody has to rethink their global strategy because the idea of having physical campuses comes with a whole variety of complications,” he said, adding that the question for colleges going forward “is really going to be of who can navigate these waters most successfully.”
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