Long before many institutions had their plans set – and despite the prevailing narrative that students wouldn't enroll – the state of California stated that the fall semester would be largely online in its 23 locations.
That calculation – one that risked the financial consequences of a distant semester to maintain the health of its communities – would be repeated by hundreds of institutions over the coming months.
The early call paid off in at least one way. Keeping most students off campus and studying remotely did not result in a sharp drop in enrollment – in fact, the system's student body grew slightly year over year.
"With regard to the decision, announced early, it was the right decision," said Zahraa Khuraibet, president of the Cal State Student Association and a graduate student in civil engineering at California State University in Northridge. "It was nice to see that the system was the first to take action and prioritize security," she said.
Timothy P. White, who served as Chancellor through late 2020, said the early announcement had given faculties, students and staff time to prepare for a fall semester that is second to none. "It seemed very clear to me that at a time of great uncertainty we are much better off creating some level of security," he said.
It was also the only morally acceptable choice, he said: “If I was wrong, I could live with it. I would have felt irresponsible for doing it the other way around. "
The academic year was not without its problems. Faculty and staff feel burned out and overworked and try to reconcile a temporally and spatially overlapping life at home and at work. Students have also been hit by the economic impact of the pandemic and peer isolation.
This could change soon. The system is again ahead of the pack and announced in December that it will reopen campus in the fall. However, it is not clear whether this decision will be welcomed as much as the one in May, and whether students and faculty members feel safe returning after a year of distance learning.
Despite predictions that students would not enroll for a semester of remote coursework, the state of California is system-wide Enrollment increased by around 1 percent, including a small increase in student enrollment for black students. The number of Hispanic students rose nearly 5 percent, according to the system.
After so much uncertainty, the system officials were relieved. White, the former chancellor, said the system was planning a decline of up to 5 percent.
Nationwide, enrollment at four-year public universities also increased, but only by 0.2 percent according to information Data from the National Student ClearinghouseThis was mainly due to a 4.6 percent increase in the number of PhD students at these institutions. Students seeking a bachelor's degree declined nearly 1 percent overall.
The strong enrollment figures were welcomed, but the system and locations were faced with an enormous logistical challenge long before the course started in the fall: How can nearly half a million students be taught and services provided to students in the largest public university system in the country? .
Some of that work began immediately in March when the system quickly moved around 80,000 courses from personal to remote, said Joseph I. Castro, the current chancellor, who began his tenure in January after serving as president of California State University in Fresno.
Overall, about 7 percent of courses included on-campus instruction, the Chancellor said, compared with 7 percent of courses taught through distance learning prior to the pandemic.
It wasn't just a challenge because of the sheer number of students; A high proportion of underserved minority students – 45 percent of students identify themselves as Spanish – and those from low-income families are enrolled at the locations of the system. According to the system, more than half are the first in their family to pursue a bachelor's degree.
Many students, as well as staff and faculty members, did not have access to appropriate technology. So the system spent nearly $ 23 million buying and distributing around 10,000 mobile Wi-Fi units and 21,000 laptops. Some campus parking lots have also been set up to enable internet access.
Student support services such as academic and career counseling also needed to be brought online, and an online planning tool also needed to be created in many locations, said Luoluo Hong, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management for the system. "Many locations did not previously have an online appointment system, even though most of the students were commuters," she said.
To meet the needs of students with unsafe food and housing, the system has taken measures such as: B. Access to food banks for students who may be closer to a campus than where they were enrolled.
"Almost every campus reported increased demand for emergency funds for basic needs," said Hong.
Strong enrollment saved the system from financial disaster, Castro said, but there was still a heavy price to pay for any changes required for this academic year. After spending more than half a billion dollars on government coronavirus aid, the system still had to use $ 200 million in reserves to cover their expenses, he said.
The system also preserved the large number of employees at a time of record loss of jobs in higher education. According to Castro, fewer than 200 employees in the system have lost their jobs, out of a total of around 53,000.
Additionally, many of the changes made during the pandemic to adapt could bring long-term benefits to the system and students, Castro said. For example, the changes in admissions and student support services have made them more accessible to college students, and the increase in online services could mean fewer people spending as much time on campus after the pandemic ends.
"This pandemic has turned everything upside down, and while being completely virtual is not ideal, it was necessary and appropriate for public health reasons," wrote Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit group, in an email.
The Siqueiros organization is one of 20 organizations calling on the system and heads of state to increase the Internet bandwidth available to college students. Low-income college students should also be eligible for discounted internet service prices, as is the case with families with elementary and high school students, said Manny Rodriguez, a senior legislative advocate for Education Trust-West.
Another important issue is that the students are still facing academic problems, Siqueiros wrote, and that they should choose whether to receive letter grade or take courses on a credit / no-credit / fail system, like this one in im The State Student Association also approved a resolution in spring 2020 Call for this option.
The decision to operate remotely for the most part this academic year also did not completely prevent cases of Covid-19 on campus, although 13 of the universities reported fewer than 100 cases and only two universities had more than 1,000 cases in total, Polytechnic in state of California in San Luis Obispo and San Diego State, compiled by numbers by The New York Times.
Faculty members and students have also praised the system's decision to stay away for the time being. But a year after the pandemic began, many are finding it difficult to feel positive about the future.
Margarita Berta-Avila, assistant professor of education at California State University in Sacramento, said a big problem is that the lines between work and personal life are blurred. Faculty needs to increase working hours and find it more difficult to find time to care for children or others in their families, she said.
On open letter Castro, of two faculty members who are also parents, urges the Chancellor to develop some empathy for those who juggle the care and upbringing of their children by excusing them from teaching a full course.
As of now, faculty members can sporadically take time off, said Charles Toombs, professor of Africana Studies at San Diego State University and president of the union that represents most of the system's faculty. This plan is "a kind of glorified sick leave," he said, "and it doesn't help because you still have all the work to do for this class."
A spokeswoman for the system said it made "a very generous offer of extra vacation time for Covid-19-related issues," but the union has declined that offer.
In fact, life on campus and the amount of in-person tuition can vary widely from campus to campus. The President of California State University at Chico, Gayle Hutchinson, announced In early February, only 20 to 30 percent of fall courses could be wholly or partially personal due to ongoing state and regional restrictions, along with the university's limited classroom space and social distance.
"There is no straightforward explanation of what this means for students," Hutchinson said in a press release. "Depending on your major and your current progress toward graduation, this could mean having a full online schedule or one that is both in person and online."
Melys Bonifacio-Jerez, a senior in Chico state who uses the pronoun they use, said face-to-face courses are far better than distance learning. But they are still concerned about the spread of Covid-19. "We're all stressed. I'm definitely stressed," they said. "I feel like I can't go on to school, but I push because I care."
"The responsible thing would be to stay away for the fall of 2021," Jerez said.
How much campus can be opened for classes depends heavily on the availability of vaccines in the state, as well as the willingness of students and staff to get vaccinated, Chancellor Castro said. Officials are still debating whether they can or will require people to be vaccinated before returning to campus.
The Faculty Association lists the availability of vaccines as the first out of 16 concerns they have about personal tuition. The classroom may still need tweaking and cleaning, said Toombs, the union leader, and vulnerable faculty members need options to continue teaching remotely. "What if there is an additional outbreak?"
The system is still waiting to see if the early announcement this fall pays off with a strong registration. According to a spokeswoman, applications at the locations are about 5 percent lower than a year ago, but many locations are still accepting applicants.
White, the former Chancellor, believes the system is already enrolling more students than ever before, even amid a global pandemic. "In the fall of 2021, many students and faculty will be ready to be on campus," he said, "but many others who have discovered that distance learning works too."