For weeks there have been variations on “XYZ University says it will/will not open in the fall and/or be online only…”
In a typical story yesterday, Harvard’s provost said, “Consequently, we will need to prepare for a scenario in which much or all learning will be conducted remotely.”

Enough about you! Let’s talk about ME says America’s university leadership.

I haven’t seen any analysis of the plight of students and families – and how universities must think about the situation from their point of view.

My family is less vulnerable than many to all of these unknowns. One of my daughters is a sophomore in college, who has adapted well to online, and the other a junior in high school who is basically on vacation. 

I feel for those graduating from high school now, especially if they have worked for years to earn a spot at their top choice school.

My college daughter lives in off-campus housing – a rent bill we must pay through August. She will not be going back in the fall, regardless. Should she take a year off? Will her university offer online as an option? Will her transfer come through and will the new school offer online-only?

Here’s the letter I wish my daughter would receive from my daughter’s university:

Dear XXX,

The fall term is coming fast and I want you to know that YYY University will support your learning regardless of the status of the pandemic that has upended  lives and killed thousands.

Today we are announcing:

  • A freeze on tuition and fees, at 2019-2020 levels, for the coming academic year
  • Relaxed registration and tuition reimbursement rules for students who withdraw from the fall term for any reason
  • The option to continue your students remotely, whether or not the university opens in the fall or later in the academic year
  • If the university does open we will have a transparent, detailed plan laying out:
    • Weekly testing for all students, faculty and staff
    • A dedicated contact-tracing team to follow up on those testing positive
    • A major addition to our university app that:
      • Enforces social distancing with alerts and reporting
      • Securely and privately captures movement and proximity to other students to facilitate contact-tracing
      • Requires the app for access to all university facilities, and select off-campus housing partners
    • Deep cleaning of our facilities on a daily and weekly basis
    • Strict guidelines on social distancing including on- and off-campus events
    • Action plans and options for students, faculty and staff who may contract COVID-19 while at school including provisions for safe, humane quarantining or return to your home

Yes, some of these requirements are invasive. These are unprecedented times that call for sacrifice and understanding to best assure the safety of our community while we advance our mission.


Yes, this will be expensive. But it is the cost of serving students in this age. Many colleges and universities are tuition driven and even a 10% drop in enrollments will be devastating. Most do not have $B endowments to cushion the next year or two of operations. Hard decisions need to be made, now. I do not envy the faculty and administrative leaders pouring over spreadsheets, trying to predict what their State House will do, what the Federal Government will do, whether they can (insane thought) raise tuition to offset increased costs and decreased enrollment.

It’s a Suzie Orman moment for organizations of all kinds. She routinely tells Americans to have six months of cash – whatever is necessary to fund your current lifestyle – available at all times. It is advice that collides head-on with unlimited data cell plans and ten different streaming services and SUVs with German name plates and 4,000 sf houses and trips to Disney.

Six months isn’t enough for many of us. If a university can’t plan its way to confidently offer the services I summarize above then it is a zombie, unable to afford basic operations, and must consider alternatives. I don’t know what those alternatives are. Can you treat a university like an automotive plant that is producing too many cars and furloughs 80% of its workforce for six months?

Like all of us I hope the virus fades and, for whatever reasons known or unknown, does not flare up in the fall. I don’t think we know whether it will flare up next week in the states beginning to relax stay-at-home orders. Hope is not a strategy, as the sales leader wrote. Big institutions that have earned our trust have a responsibility to play the long game and, if they cannot afford to deliver, to be forthcoming so families can plan their own pathway through the crisis.