When the coronavirus struck the U.S. in March, residential colleges and universities across the country told the majority of students to leave campus and take classes online for the rest of the semester, losing the interaction of in-person education. Now, months later and with the coronavirus pandemic still flaring up in the United States, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies asked American respondents in our latest national poll whether they agreed or disagreed that universities should open as fully as possible this fall.

We found that the public is split on whether colleges ought to reopen in person – 36% agree, while 37% disagree. Furthermore, 27% neither agree nor disagree or do not know. These figures are consistent even among 18 to 24-year-olds, many of whom may be in college: 35% agree that universities should reopen fully, while 35% disagree.

Considering 2020 presidential voting intention, we find that there is a notable partisan divide on this issue. A majority of likely Trump voters (57%) believe that universities should open in-person this fall, with 17% disagreeing. In contrast, the majority (54%) of likely Biden voters do not agree, compared to 22% that agree. These figures match our findings on the coronavirus crisis more generally. Trump voters are more likely than Biden voters to support faster re-opening plans and feel more confident about US control over the crisis and preparation in case of a second wave.

The state of the coronavirus pandemic is only one factor that influences public opinion on university re-opening.

Respondents who believe that universities should reopen may recall the poor quality of instruction from this past spring and argue that remote education is not worth the time and money spent. The U.S. already faces a student loan crisis and higher tuition costs than anywhere else in the world. Many universities have also stated that they will not reduce tuition for online learning, and even those that have agreed to a discount are unlikely to satisfy parents and students. Furthermore, while families could accept an emergency situation in March, many hesitate to miss a full year of interaction with professors and friends, job recruiting, extra-curricular activities, and other opportunities. The “experience” of college is particularly important to the U.S. model of higher education and justifies its tuition costs.

Despite these challenges, however, just as many families may believe that it is not possible for universities to reopen safely this fall. Plans for safe in-person opening require expensive and difficult adjustments to campus spaces, housing, and human interaction. University faculty tend to be over 60 years-old, making them especially susceptible to adverse complications from coronavirus. Old buildings tend to have poor ventilation, and dormitories do not have enough rooms to ensure social distancing. Many parents and administrators also acknowledge that it would be difficult to enforce social distancing guidelines and masks among students.

In the event of an outbreak, it would be stressful and difficult to have students on campus move out on short notice again, as they did in March. In addition, many universities students live in off-campus apartments or commute to classes from home. These students and families may believe that it is unsafe and unnecessary for universities to reopen in-person in the fall, when they can easily partake in remote classes off-campus.  

Just as the public recognizes these conflicting issues, universities have released wide-ranging plans to address this dilemma. Some have decided on a full in-person experience where students remain within the “campus bubble,” while others have chosen a fully remote plan or hybrid models. In addition to the educational component, colleges have decided who can return to campus housing, opting for anywhere from 35% to full residential capacity, based on the number of students who typically live in campus accommodation and the level of university access to health resources to conduct routine quarantine and testing. A few have instituted tuition discounts, while others have gone ahead with planned tuition increases. Universities are grappling with different state guidelines, local situations, financial concerns, and their student body makeup to identify the right reopening plan.

The variety of plans have led to confusion and uncertainty. In response, students are considering other ways to spend their time off campus. Interest in gap semesters or gap years is unusually high this year, and many have already decided to take time off in hopes of a more typical experience in fall 2021. It remains to be seen what effect this may have on the economy, employment, and university enrollment into the future.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

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