Test and trace, test and trace, test and trace.
So goes nearly every college announcement that campus will be open for students in the fall.
"We intend to know as much as possible about the viral health status of our community," Mitch Daniels, Purdue University's president, wrote in a letter to the campus community announcing an intention to reopen. "It will include a robust testing system during the school year."
"Testing is an absolute prerequisite," wrote Brown University president Christina Paxson in a New York Times op-ed. "All campuses must be able to conduct rapid testing for the coronavirus for all students, when they first arrive on campus and at regular intervals throughout the year."
The American College Health Association included in guidelines to institutions that a "return to an active on-campus environment will depend upon widespread testing, contact tracing and isolation/quarantine of ill and exposed individuals both on campus and in the community."
But can colleges get access to the those diagnostic tests, or even afford them? The answer is complicated.
Earlier this year, as the pandemic was making silent headway into American bloodstreams, the testing regimen in the U.S. was obviously not optimal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first sent out faulty tests, and then none at all.
Craig Roberts, an epidemiologist emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a consultant for ACHA and a member of its COVID-19 task force, said capacity to test has grown since that time, and for the most part should not be an issue for colleges in the fall.
"Before you can reopen, in this case, a university, they have to have the capacity in place to provide diagnostic testing for students, staff and faculty," he said. "You need to make sure that if someone is experiencing any symptoms of COVID that they can get tested immediately."
He added that "in most areas of the country, most jurisdictions, that kind of testing capacity is already beginning to happen and probably by fall will be such a common thing that it will be simple. In fact, it will be that many local public health departments are offering testing on a daily basis."
A large outbreak could still overwhelm a system, he said, but that's where state and local health officials would step in to help.
Dr. Michael Diechen, associate vice president of student health services at the University of Central Florida and also a member of ACHA's task force, said diagnostic testing capacity isn't a major concern in his area.
"Testing capacity has been expanding nicely in the United States. Certainly in Florida, where UCF is located, we seem to have ample testing," he said. Whether availability of tests is sufficient is measured by the percentage of tests that come back positive, with a rule of thumb being under 6 percent is better. Where UCF is located, that number is 1 to 2 percent, he said.
"Assuming things stay as they are over the summer, that will be fine," he said.
Roberts said that small colleges with small student health centers may need to partner with health-care organizations, systems or local agencies, in order to not be overwhelmed by testing. Many college administrations have indicated that is what they intend to do.
At UCF, Dr. Diechen said the university has a community partner that has set up drive-through testing.
Calvin University, located in Grand Rapids, Mich., is another college that has chosen to partner with a health-care company -- in this case Helix Diagnostics -- to help with testing.
"I'm just not seeing enough to tell me that the government at the county or state level is really prepared to do the contact tracing and testing on a scale that is needed," said Michael Le Roy, Calvin's president. "We know that more tests are available now, but as workplaces ramp back up and many companies are doing this kind of testing, and as some educational institutions are going to be doing this kind of testing, the demand for it in the short run isn't going to go away."
Le Roy also said creating a partnership now allowed Helix to develop capacity and get supplies and labor in order.
The university will have 5,000 tests for about 4,000 students and staff members. Students and staff will be tested as they arrive to campus, with 1,000 additional tests left for the semester.
There's no easy answer to how many tests each college is going to need, said Roberts. Similarly, how many rooms for quarantine and isolation a college will need to set aside is also difficult to say.
"You might have one case this semester or you might have 1,000," he said.
The idea of testing before arrival or testing everyone once per week is common in other college plans, but Roberts said that might not be the best use of resources.
"I have not seen any standardized recommendations from the CDC or state health departments for doing mass testing of any community," he said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to me to do mass testing of an entire population when that population is re-exposed on a daily basis."
Resources might be better spent on contact tracing and quarantine capacity, he said.
But Le Roy said that with the symptoms of COVID-19 often being minimal in the 18- to 22-year-old age group, not prescreening could be inviting trouble.
Dr. Diechen said UCF is looking at prescreening all students who live in residence halls, and potentially including athletes and students who arrive from hot-spot areas.
"Just detecting one person can prevent an outbreak," he said.
ACHA guidelines similarly call for contact tracing, which Le Roy said hasn't been nailed down for Calvin, although the university is working on it.
Roberts said residence halls are likely to be a bigger issue for colleges. ACHA guidelines call for each student to be placed in a private room, ideally with a private bathroom as well, which many colleges are not set up to provide. Those that do have the inventory have stressed private rooms will be provided, while others are looking for creative solutions, such as procuring temporary housing. That's not even to mention what happens when students will inevitably need to be quarantined.
"Often in this field we compare residence halls to cruise ships," Roberts said.
If there is an issue with testing, he said, it is unlikely to be a capacity issue and more likely to be a financial one. His own institution, the University of Wisconsin, had previously said testing would cost about $20 million for one round of testing. Timothy White, chancellor of the California State University system, said that to test half the system's students once a week would cost $25 million weekly, too much for the system to bear.
"We're figuring it out as we go," said Roberts. "There's not a given playbook we can work off of."
Colleges and universities around the country will have sufficient testing capacity and are taking the needed steps to safely reopen their physical campuses this fall, the head of the U.S. Senate’s education committee said in a discussion with reporters Thursday. He also vowed that Senate Republicans would ensure that colleges receive liability protection from potential lawsuits by students or employees who get sick if they return to campus – if Congress passes more legislation regarding COVID-19.
Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who is retiring this year, said he viewed the opening of schools and college campuses this fall as essential to restoring the American economy and society to a “sense of normalcy.”
“The surest sign that we’re beginning to regain the rhythm of American life will come when 70 million students go back to school and to college this fall,” Alexander said.
The senator said he held a call Thursday morning with leaders from 90 of Tennessee’s 127 postsecondary institutions and that “all of them are planning to resume in-person classes in August” and are “using a variety of techniques to make sure their campus is safe.”
Alexander repeated several times that the keys to defeating the coronavirus, and to reopening campuses, were testing, treatments and vaccines, and said he was confident that colleges would have sufficient testing by this summer to enable them to quarantine students and staff members who were either infected or exposed.
He said testing was one of the three major concerns expressed by Tennessee college leaders he spoke with this morning, along with issues of liability and funding “flexibility.”
On liability, “they don’t want to be sued if they reopen their school and somebody gets sick,” Alexander said, adding that Congress “won’t pass another COVID bill unless it has liability protection.” He clarified later that he could not promise that Congress would pass a bill providing such protection, only that “if another COVID bill passes … you can be sure that Republican senators will insist that it provides liability protection for schools and businesses.”
On funding, he said the presidents want “more flexibility in any funding that we provide for colleges and in the funding we’ve already provided” as part of the CARES Act. He cited legislation filed this month that would give states more flexibility in how they use those already distributed funds.
Alexander said it was an “open question on whether there will be more funding for states and schools” coming from the federal government. “We should do that carefully,” he said, since Congress had “appropriated $3 trillion in about three weeks and some of that money hasn’t even been sent to the states yet.”
A few other choice comments from Alexander:
- In response to a reporter’s question about whether COVID-19-related immigration restrictions may stem the flow of international students to American colleges, he reiterated that the best way to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. is through testing, treatments and vaccines -- “not to restrict students who come from other countries to get their graduate degrees … talented students who companies here want to hire.”
- In describing some of the steps colleges should take to ensure physical distancing, he referred to them as “notorious wasters of space” and said they could spread their classes into the evenings and weekends.
The Yale Endowment Justice Coalition is calling for Yale University to help ease the economic burden of the pandemic on students, faculty, staff and the surrounding city of New Haven, Conn.
The group of students and New Haven residents is focused on the university’s $30 billion endowment, which is the third-largest endowment in the country behind Harvard University's and the endowment for the University of Texas system, according to recent data from the National Association of College and University Business Officers.
Coalition leaders are asking the university to freeze rent collection on all university properties (the university has already stopped collecting rent on some, the group said) and to make unoccupied housing available to New Haven residents who need a place to social distance, among other requests.
“Yale has a huge amount of wealth and power in their endowment,” said Alex Cohen, a junior math student at Yale who has studied the university’s endowment spending. “It’s a tremendous amount of power to help people in the Yale community.”
So far, Yale has not indicated it plans to increase its endowment spending rate in response to the pandemic, Cohen said.
In a letter to students, Yale president Peter Salovey said that though the university will not increase its rate of spending, it will be pulling a greater portion of the endowment as its value decreases.
"Yale’s policy for spending from the endowment does mitigate the immediate effects of a financial disruption. When the value of the endowment drops, we spend a greater percentage of the endowment’s value than when the endowment’s value is rising," he wrote. "This 'smoothing' component of the policy has proven over time to be a very effective way to blunt the immediate shock of a drop in the endowment on our budget. Nonetheless, when endowment investment returns are smaller than originally anticipated, our spending over time must decrease."
The coalition’s request and Yale’s response illustrate a looming question facing well-endowed colleges across the country: Should colleges leverage their endowments to patch temporary revenue holes and prevent pandemic-necessitated cost cutting, or should they hold spending rates steady to ensure endowments' long-term strength?
The answer, like those to most college finance questions, varies greatly by institution and investment philosophy, and experts come down on both sides.
To really understand the options colleges have, it’s important to know how endowments are managed. Jim Hundrieser, NACUBO’s vice president for consulting services, emphasized that not all endowment funds are accessible for spending.
“It’s just not a savings account waiting to be tapped,” he said. “It’s a designated long-term fund to help support operations and students in their efforts.”
Some portion of all endowment funds is restricted, which means they are earmarked for a specific project, scholarship or other activity designated by whoever donated the money. Restricted funds cannot be spent on anything beyond their designated purpose.
Small institutions’ endowments typically contain a greater percentage of restricted funds than endowments at larger, more prestigious colleges, Hundrieser said. Small institutions also tend to rely less on endowment returns to support their operating budgets and more on student tuition and fees.
For wealthy colleges that lean heavily on endowment returns to make up their operating budgets, shifts in spending rates can more drastically impact future endowment outlook.
For example, Princeton University president Chris Eisgruber said in a May 4 letter to students that, absent growth, the university would deplete its entire $26.1 billion endowment at its current spending rate after 20 years. Princeton is one of a few that have announced they will likely increase their endowment spending rate amid the pandemic -- from 5 percent to 6 percent.
“We believe that an average annual endowment spend rate slightly above 5 percent is in fact sustainable. With this year’s decline in endowment value, however, we expect to be spending more than 6 percent of our endowment. That rate is not sustainable,” Eisgruber wrote. “We therefore need to reduce the University’s operating expenditures, especially because there is a substantial risk that greater economic distress may lie ahead. That is why Provost Deborah Prentice has rightly called for salary freezes, tighter vacancy management, and reductions to non-essential expenditures.”
Another prevailing argument to maintain and not raise endowment spending rates year to year is that a consistent rate preserves intergenerational equity -- the belief that past, present and future students are getting the same quality of education regardless of the economy’s health at the time.
But not all experts buy it.
“It’s sort of a joke to say that the problem is to maintain intergenerational equity,” said Charlie Eaton, an economic sociologist and assistant professor at the University of California, Merced. “Because if you look at, say, Harvard or Princeton, the endowment is 1,000 percent larger than it was in the 1970s.”
Eaton attributes the difference to a change in investment strategy. Today, endowments are managed to get a maximum return on investment, he said. This is a shift from earlier investment strategies that mostly sought to maintain endowment strength at given levels.
More recently, endowment values took a hit during the Great Recession. According to a report by John Griffith, vice president and endowment specialist at Hirtle Callaghan, a financial planning firm, endowments experienced declines of 25 to 30 percent below their peak value during the 2008 financial crisis. NACUBO data indicate many top endowments went on to recover and reach new peaks in the ensuing decade.
Still, some wealthy colleges increased their endowment spending during the recession and are likely to do so again this time around, Eaton said.
“What’s more at risk than intergenerational equity is the welfare of students and especially low-wage employees now,” Eaton said. “Especially schools with large endowments -- they will do fine preserving intergenerational equity, but they need to take care of their workers and students today.”
For now, the question over endowment health is a hypothetical one. The stock market plummeted in late March, but many valuations have since almost fully recovered. The predicted economic downturn has yet to impact endowments, said Hundrieser.
“Right now, the market is pricing in a lot of the good news we have heard, like potentials with the vaccine and the good news there, as well as the Fed stepping in,” said Susan McEvoy, director and investment officer at Hirtle Callaghan.
A lot is still unknown, especially as businesses across the country remain closed and colleges are still uncertain whether they will be able to reopen in the fall. The uncertainty presents opportunities for colleges, though, said Griffith.
“In recovery time, you move to more active managers who are moving away from indexes,” he said. “This is when people are going to need untraditional loans, so private credit, that’s a great opportunity.”
He added that high-demand investment managers often have openings after other clients choose to liquidate assets. The crisis “gives you an opportunity to invest with some of the best managers in the world,” Griffith said.
Petitions supporting both sides of the debate have drawn tens of thousands of signatures each from students and academics.
If implemented, the proposal would finally align the nation’s academic calendar with most of the rest of the developed world and facilitate international exchanges. However, scholars have voiced concerns that a sudden shift could be financially costly and socially disruptive.
The Japanese Educational Research Association (JERA), the country’s largest academic association in the education field, said in a statement this week that private universities alone could lose nearly $9.2 billion if they were required to refund tuition fees during periods of disruption, and that some may even face closure.
Teruyuki Hirota, JERA's president, told Times Higher Education that transitioning the education system, from primary to tertiary, would create an “extraordinarily heavy burden, both in human resources and system change.” A special JERA task force concluded that the proposed plan may not solve current problems caused by the COVID-19 shutdown, such as unequal access to online education. Hirota explained that, if a change were to happen, it could be in the following academic year, starting September 2021.
JERA has petitioned the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) against “rushing” into a decision.
Futao Huang, a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, told Times Higher Education that attempts to move the school year to September have faltered since the 1980s, partly because the shift would affect other sectors, including employment and social services.
“Changing the current calendar to the beginning of September might benefit higher education institutions more from the perspective of internationalization, especially in accepting inbound international students and dispatching domestic students abroad, but it will not necessarily bring apparent advantages to students in primary and secondary schools,” he said. Shifting the entire education system, from the preschool level up, would be “extremely difficult.”
MEXT needed to collaborate with other sectors, including the business community, on such a move, Huang said. “A more comprehensive and in-depth discussion is required” on “which stakeholders would benefit most from the change, and what would be the minimum cost to Japan,” he said.
The idea for a new academic calendar was reignited in April when the new academic year began in fits and starts amid student concerns about the accessibility of online education and the loss of campus life.
Students in Osaka petitioned to move the new semester to September so that all students could maintain “equal educational footing” and “enjoy school life in full.” The governors of Tokyo and Osaka followed up with a call for a “bold paradigm shift” to a September start, which would “make it easier for our youth to be active in the world,” according to The Japan Times.
Finally, it's Pet Friday!
Here is Lola, the happy pup of Brittany Maschal, who runs a consulting firm. She's a 13-year-old Jack Russell-dachshund mix that was rescued from a McDonald's parking lot in West Virginia. "She's now living the good life, splitting her time between Brooklyn and the Catskills. She frequently (although uninvited) attends student meetings via FaceTime and Zoom, and never ceases to put smiles on anxiety-ridden high schoolers' faces," Maschal writes.
And here are Layla and Rudy, who belong to Christine Shaw, administrative coordinator at the Center for Global Engagement at Columbus State University, in Georgia. Layla, a 2-year-old mini dapple dachshund, is seen on the left working hard from home. On the right, 8-year-old standard doxie Rudy helps Layla keep a lookout, presumably for the mailman.
"Layla is the sweetest thing ever! She loves to run and play with her 'brother' Rudy. On the spur of the moment they will run through the house or yard at top speed, chasing each other (we call that wiener-time)," Shaw said.
I need more animal photos! Send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To the news.
Senator Lamar Alexander, the head of the U.S. Senate's education committee, said colleges will have sufficient testing capacity to reopen campuses this fall. He also vowed that Senate Republicans would ensure any future COVID-19 legislation from Congress would include liability protection for colleges from potential lawsuits if students or employees get sick after returning to campus. College presidents brought up their liability concerns at a meeting last week with Vice President Pence.
A preliminary study found that spring breakers may have spread the coronavirus far and wide.
The Division I Council of the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced it will now allow Division I football and basketball programs to start training. The move opens the door for the use of athletic facilities, in compliance with local regulations. However, athletes must initiate the activity and coaches can't require them to report back.
Public colleges and universities in Colorado will see their collective state funding budget cut by nearly $500 million next year. To help ease the pain, the state's governor allocated $450 million in federal CARES Act funds to public higher education, bringing the net cut down to 5 percent.
The University of California system is considering implementing hybrid courses, leaving campuses open but letting students take courses online. Announcements may come around mid-June.
Here’s a quick roundup of our latest stories, in case you’ve fallen a bit behind (we don’t blame you):
About a week ago, a photo of partying college students surfaced in Boulder, Colo., causing quite a stir. Greta Anderson reported on how colleges are trying to police these get-togethers.
Tuition discount rates are rising as enrollment declines. Emma Whitford wrote about what that could mean for private colleges.
Elizabeth Redden has the details on the new guidelines the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released for colleges that want to reopen.
Colleen Flaherty has a roundup of what institutions are doing to faculty and staff retirement plans as they slash budgets.
News From Elsewhere
Teen Vogue talked with some higher ed heavyweights about the future of college after COVID-19, if you want to know what the kids are reading.
Want to know why some colleges are pushing ahead on the college football season? ESPN has the answer (and it starts with a "B").
This isn't about higher ed, but it's still worth a read. The New York Times reports on a study that found the slow moves to lockdown cost nearly 40,000 lives in the United States.
This is a time when everyone has an opinion. As journalists, we try not to have opinions, but we've gathered some interesting ones from others.
The president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education writes for the Courier-Journal about how high school graduates should still look to colleges for a better life in the long run.
An English professor wrote about how the humanities can help on the front line of the pandemic.
Have any percolating thoughts or notice any from others? Feel free to send them our way or comment below.
We’ll continue bringing you the news you need in this crazy time. Keep sending us your questions and story ideas. We’ll get through this together.