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The class divide in college classes

Elite schools can afford to play it safe during the coronavirus pandemic


Wolfpack mascots appear on a poster at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Gerry Broome/AP

The class divide in college classes
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With a month of unknowns left before the start of college classes, a clear class divide has opened between the college “haves”—those institutions with deep pockets and an elite brand—and all the rest.

In short, the “haves” can afford to minimize COVID-19 risk by keeping classes online or going to a hybrid model. They have big endowments. Their diplomas confer status that students don’t want to give up. For the rest, whether Christian or secular, not fully opening will pre­sent risks that apparently outweigh COVID-19 concerns.

I compared the Top 25 institutions, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report, with 25 Christian colleges and universities, including Wheaton and Cedarville, and 25 public and private colleges such as Stetson and the University of Tulsa that have an average enrollment similar to the Christian ones.

Most schools in the Top 25 plan on hybrid classes this fall. That means students can live on campus at schools like Cornell and Yale, but their class periods will alternate between in-person and online. This cuts attendance at each lecture in half, making social distancing easier. Six schools, including Princeton and Harvard, will hold almost all classes online. The only exception in the Top 25 is Notre Dame, which plans to hold all but a few large classes in person.

Outside the privileged few, the picture changes. Many small schools attract students with the promise of tight-knit campus community. If they undercut that promise by going online, students may transfer elsewhere, taking tuition dollars with them. Even if every student stays enrolled, opening online means missing out on room and board revenue. Few can afford the loss.

Of the 25 Christian schools, 23 plan to return with in-person classes and open dorms. The two exceptions, Seattle Pacific University and Houston Baptist University, plan to allow students in campus housing but will hold hybrid classes. The last group of 25, similar in size to the Christian schools, is a mix: Eight plan on hybrid classes, and 15 plan to reopen fully in person. None plans to be totally online.

While an elite few schools wait for the storm to pass, many of the rest hope masks, tests, and student rule-following—often a challenge—will be enough to stave off outbreaks.

—Esther Eaton is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a WORLD intern

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