Empty computer lab in UMKC. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)
Empty computer lab in UMKC. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

With an increase in COVID-19 cases in Kansas and Missouri and less than two months before the semester begins, college administrators in and around Kansas City are still scrambling to figure out exactly what school will look like this fall in a coronavirus world — and if students are going to show up. 

Entering July, many plans are still in flux for the upcoming semester.

But a few things have become clearer since the virus forced shutdowns at universities in March: Some combination of face-to-face and online classes will be offered, residence hall life will look different and the upcoming drop in enrollment may not be as bad as originally predicted. In at least one local case, enrollment numbers may actually be going up from last fall.

The enrollment outlook

Fall enrollment predictions were dire as the shutdowns began in March. SimpsonScarborough, a college research and marketing firm, predicted that four-year institutions could be looking at as much as a 20% enrollment drop. A forecast from March by the Art & Science Group showed 17% of incoming freshmen intended to change their plans to go to a four-year school, with most considering a gap year or part-time status.

In Kansas and Missouri, most schools are predicting a down year for enrollments, though maybe not as low as those national polls indicate.

Many Kansas administrators would not talk about their enrollment predictions, saying things are too changeable and that the numbers aren’t all in yet. University of Kansas officials were among those who declined to predict enrollment. But comments pieced together from a May 21 Board of Regents meeting and a press briefing show that they are expecting a significant decline from 2019.

Doug Girod, chancellor of the University of Kansas, told the regents at the meeting that based on deposit and housing requests for freshmen, he expected enrollment to be down between 8% and 10%. 

“And I think those are pretty soft numbers,” he said. “Ten percent for us is a likely scenario. I think a worst case, frankly, is a lot worse than that.”

Richard Myers, president of Kansas State University, agreed, saying his scenarios range from a best case of being down “a couple percent” to 8-10%. 

“Right now, we really don’t have a good handle on it,” he said. “We get conflicting signals from the students.”

Carolyn Shaw, associate vice president of strategic enrollment management at Wichita State University, was more optimistic. Summer enrollments there have been up significantly, she said — over 13% from last summer. WSU is projecting fall enrollment to be down 4% from last year. 

“Down is never a great number, but it isn’t nearly as bad as some of the other institutions across the country,” she said.

At Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, President Matthew Wilson said enrollment projections have seemed to rebound from a few weeks ago, when the numbers were showing a 16% drop. Now it’s more like 7.5%, he said.

That’s mostly based on returning students, Wilson said. The new student base will be more unpredictable because Missouri Western doesn’t have a fee deposit on which to base its numbers. But there is still concern over applications to the university, which have decreased by 15%. 

“That’s our wild card,” he said.

The University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, is an uncommon bright spot in the enrollment picture. There, enrollment may actually be increasing. The deadline for freshman enrollment deposit refunds just passed and based on that data, the freshman numbers may be up 1.8%, according to spokesperson Christian Basi. Returning student numbers also look good, he said, with around 2,000 more enrollments than last year, which Basi said was a substantial increase.

Online classes versus in-person learning

There’s little certainty about how classes will be run in the fall. But so far, institutions planning on having exclusively online classes are rare. Haskell Indian Nations University posted on its Facebook page June 25 that it would only offer online courses this fall, noting that the pandemic has been particularly hard on tribal nations, which have suffered a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases and job losses from the closure of casinos.

But other colleges contacted by The Beacon did not plan to go exclusively online. In fact, the emerging consensus is that there will be a variety of in-person and online offerings, with some classes possibly becoming hybrids.

Madeline Houx, an incoming senior, majoring in psychology on the UMKC campus.
Madeline Houx, an incoming senior, majoring in psychology on the UMKC campus.

That may be because some polls show that high school students are generally not interested in taking fully online courses, especially if they cost the same as in-person ones.

Wilson said he sees that attitude among some prospective Missouri Western students who prefer the daily regimen and supportive benefits of being around other students.

University of Missouri-Kansas City psychology major Madeline Houx would count herself as one of those. A semester of all-online courses was not exactly what Houx, a returning senior, had hoped for her fall semester. 

“Online learning is a bit harder for me,” she said. “I usually soak up information better in person.” 

Although UMKC will offer classes both in-person and online, all of Houx’s will be online this fall, she said. She doesn’t particularly like the way the online courses structure her days and her free time. Still, Houx wanted to return and be with friends. She plans to attend graduate school in the future and is encouraged that many now offer hybrid in-person and online courses. 

“I’m hoping it’s just all over by then,” Houx said.

Online coursework also poses some challenges for lab work and the arts, Wilson said. Art equipment and expensive software for animation and graphic design are available on university-owned computers but may be too pricey for most students to get on their own devices.

Expecting students to do online work also may not be fair to those with limited resources or those who live in areas with poor internet, Wilson said. 

“It’s a great concept in principle, and it makes a lot of sense,” he said. “But when you dive down into the details, you’ve got a lot of issues.”

College life in a coronavirus world

Many of the kinks are still being worked out as schools grapple with how to make college feel like college while keeping students and faculty safe. Administrators are asking themselves if the safety measures will end up turning off the students they need for a sustainable enrollment.

Athletics, a significant revenue generator for universities, face some of the toughest challenges. Although practices have been limited in most places, positive coronavirus tests have been recorded among athletes at KU and K-State

Then there’s the question of crowds at the stadiums. Fans are still as enthusiastic as ever about football, said KU Athletics Director Jeff Long. But stadium crowds may feel lonely. Long said KU has been modeling Memorial Stadium — a 47,000-seat venue — for crowds of 15,000 to 16,000 to maintain social distancing.  

“We’ve modeled Allen Fieldhouse, but I can’t bring myself to look at it because I know how few people it will be, and that’s upsetting,” he said during an interview at the University of Kansas Health System’s daily press briefing. 

UMKC's Haag Hall, like most of campus, is empty. Chase Castor/The Beacon
UMKC’s Haag Hall, like most of campus, is empty. Chase Castor/The Beacon

Schools are also considering major schedule changes. Mizzou recently proposed adding 10 days plus Labor Day to the front end of the fall semester and stopping in-person classes just before Thanksgiving. Exams and final projects would have been done remotely.

The idea was to limit the amount of travel between home and the university, possibly limiting the spread of the coronavirus, said Mizzou’s Basi. But the plan had the potential to complicate internships and housing leases, and was voted down by the MU Faculty Council. 

K-State and KU decided to go ahead with similar scheduling changes.

College administrators are looking at a wide variety of other ways to follow distancing rules. Some of the biggest changes may be with residence halls and common areas. 

The University of Central Missouri will make all residence hall rooms single occupancy, with exceptions for people who request a suite with a shared bathroom, for instance, but MU and Missouri Western officials say that’s not an option for them. At UMKC, there will be more spacing and less furniture in common areas.

While administrators say they’re doing all they can, they’ll also encourage students to take personal hygiene and distancing seriously. And if they can’t distance, said KU’s Girod, they should be wearing a mask.

Roxie Hammill is a freelance reporter for The Beacon.

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Roxie Hammill is a freelance reporter for The Beacon