It’s difficult to imagine higher education facing a more intense set of challenges than what we are seeing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. These challenges will likely be felt for years to come, but fall 2020 will test many of the standards and structures that we have come to associate with higher education.

While no one can foresee what will happen in the fall, most colleges and universities are thinking through a range of options. These options tend to fall along a continuum, with everything being back to normal on one end and fully remote learning on the other. The former is mostly outside the control of most institutions and the latter an option that many would rather not choose, at least not yet. In between is where it gets complicated.

Here are 15 scenarios for the fall that we think schools will be considering.

1. Back to Normal

In this scenario, the fall semester looks like any other fall semester. Residential students return to campus; commuting students participate in classes on campus as usual. All co-curricular and curricular activities pick up as usual. Life is back to normal, perhaps (hopefully) with some lessons learned from the upheaval of the spring about the importance of investments in teaching and learning support.

2. A Late Start

One possibility for the fall is that colleges and universities begin the semester later than usual, perhaps sometime in October or even early November, whenever the social distancing restrictions can accommodate students gathering together in classes on campus. Schools may choose to start online and then pick up face-to-face slightly later in the semester, or they may postpone the start of the semester until there is a vaccine, better testing or a clear turning point in our fight against the ongoing spread of COVID-19.

3. Moving Fall to Spring

While under the previous scenario the fall semester would start late, it still assumes a fall semester would take place within the boundaries of the normal fall semester. In this scenario, the fall semester would be postponed until January 2021. From there, schools might choose to push back the spring semester to the summer, or push through a modified calendar to make spring and a much shorter summer session possible. This is a drastic step, but it is one that some colleges are actively considering as part of their fall planning.

4. First-Year Intensive

How a student begins their college experience may be the best predictor of how their college experience will end. The ability of a student to persist through the rigors of college life is in part dependent on the quality of the support they receive in orienting to the independence and intensity of college-level work. Recognizing the importance of the first year and the first few weeks and months of the transition to college, this plan brings only first-year students to campus in the fall. First-year students learn in residential classes, while also participating in a full range of campus-based orientation and social-connecting exercises. Sophomores, juniors and seniors continue to learn remotely for the fall semester.

5. Graduate Students Only

Like the first-year intensive model, this approach would identify select student populations for return to campus. In this model, a smaller population of graduate students might return to campus to continue studies and to help with research continuity. There are other ways of identifying student populations — by school, by major, by class — that could also be combined with curricular and administrative considerations such as class size and need for face-to-face interaction.

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