Michigan Tech in Houghton, at night. Photo by Jcvertin - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Michigan Tech in Houghton, at night. Photo by Jcvertin - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As Michigan Technological University joins the list of colleges aiming to resume in-person instruction in the fall, the university is looking out for freshmen with unique physical and emotional health considerations.

HOUGHTON, MI — How will Michigan colleges handle their next semester? It varies and each institution and student have to answer some deep, challenging questions. 

Some answers may lie in how schools like the prestigious Michigan Technological University are handling their upcoming enrollment. 

Calling Michigan Tech carries a national reputation but sits remotely, to say the least. The Upper Peninsula college is so far in Michigan’s northwest that it can actually be quicker if a student wants to weekend in Chicago to drive through all of Wisconsin rather than journey through Michigan.

Even so, Michigan Tech is looking ahead to how to safely handle the fall semester.

Houghton County only has two of Michigan’s near-50,000 cases of the pandemic coronavirus as of Tuesday, The ‘Gander reports, and still Michigan Tech is expecting to be hard-hit by the pandemic, just in different ways. 

But they’ve started answering the critical questions. 

When Do Michigan Colleges Come Back?

For students, those questions are about their safety. While it might seem that Houghton is in a great place, medically and geographically, to handle those concerns, the distance poses its own problems for Michigan Tech.

“We’ve had a certain number of students cancelling their enrollment decision or postponing their enrollment decision because they don’t want to be away from home if something happens,” Kyle Rubin, Director of Admissions Recruitment for Michigan Tech told The ‘Gander 

Some people would see the relative isolation of a place like Houghton from the rest of the state as a blessing during a pandemic, some would see it as a curse. Rubin accepted that both those things might be true, as might neither of them. The whole picture he described was more complex, filled with returning and prospective students having to ask serious questions of themselves.

“Maybe they’re afraid they’re going to get stuck,” he said. “What if there’s an outbreak and they can’t leave or what if mom and dad get sick and they have to go home? Those kinds of things are going through student’s minds.”

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Across Michigan, and for that matter around the world, universities are asking themselves serious questions too. How and when will universities reopen? How will they mitigate decreased enrollment? How will they reassure students that their campus and classes will be safe?

There’s no one answer, even just among Michigan colleges. For Oakland University classes will resume in-person this fall. So will classes at Central Michigan University. So will classes at Lake Superior State, who is even starting the fall semester early.  

On the other hand, the entire University of California system is poised to remain online-only through the end of 2020. 

And for his part, leading coronavirus expert Anthony Fauci has cautioned against rushing to throw wide the university gates, the Los Angeles Times noted. Answering a question about reassuring students with a treatment or vaccine in the fall, Fauci didn’t mince words.

“In this case, the idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate the re-entry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far,” Fauci said. 

Michigan Tech has set fall as its goal to return to in-person instruction as well. But it isn’t just a matter of declaring the college open — those exact fears Fauci couldn’t alleviate with a cure, those fears Rubin has seen in students, might keep them from showing up at all.

“About 15-25% of students are rethinking either their college choices or whether they go at all,” said Rubin. “That’s sort of where we’re at. Every university is sort of dealing with the possibility of lost enrollment.”

 That’s not just because of safety concerns either. Rubin has said that a major effort in his office is working with students the pandemic has sent for a very, very unexpected loop. So many traditions of changing stages of life have been totally upended by the pandemic, so many prospective freshmen never got the feeling of graduation. Rubin and his staff walk students through the decision-making process.

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“What we’re doing is encouraging them to not make a decision today,” said Rubin. “Nobody knows what the fall is going to look like, right? Nobody really knows what next week is going to look like. I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to sit back and see how this all plays out.”

As part of that step back Rubin encouraged, Michigan Tech is extending its enrollment petition deadline from May 1 to July 1. That’s not a unique position Tech has taken, and neither are the ways it plans to reshape the fall semester. 

“We hope that students take their time and do their best to enjoy what’s left of their senior year, and then just make the decision that’s best for them in the future with all the right information and a lot of tha we don’t have at the moment,” said Rubin. 

“Patience is what I hope they get out of this.“

How Do Michigan Colleges Come Back?

Michigan Tech plans to announce more information throughout the coming weeks, but the plan at the moment is to gradually phase in face-to-face instruction over the summer and be back to an in-person fall schedule on time.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be changes. So in the fall, Michigan Tech will likely be reducing class sizes, creating spaces for smaller-scale collaborations, dining services offering take-out or grab-and-go and a changing and evolving nature of health and safety in the age of coronavirus. 

“[Students] are rightfully concerned, right? So, therefore, we are concerned.” said Rubin. “Once we get that level of communication to incoming students around the country — and this isn’t just Michigan Tech, I think all universities sort of need to do this — I think there will be some relief amongst incoming students and graduating seniors.”

There is no one approach, just as there’s no one answer for students asking how or if they should change their plans for school in the fall. But like that other hard question, working it out together has clear benefits.

Bridge reported that Oakland is taking a hybrid in-person and online approach, and moving classes to venues designed for much larger audiences. A class of 50 might use a lecture hall that seats 250, for instance, and campus ballrooms will be converted to classrooms. 

Central Michigan University will be reducing dorm populations and creating isolation wards for students who become infected, MLive reports. They will also be changing maintenance staff standards for cleaning and disinfecting as well as redesigning instruction spaces.

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But as Bridge reports, colleges will need to manage this on much smaller budgets. That decreased enrollment Rubin warned about is going to leave universities already hurting from the pandemic absolutely reeling as they try to adapt to some expensive changes on shrinking budgets. 

“This is unlike anything we’ve dealt with in the past,” Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, told Bridge. “This is an alarming environment. There are so many unknowables.”

Already, Michigan State and Wayne State have lost tens of millions of dollars and the University of Michigan system might have lost as much as $1 billion already, not including a potential recession’s damage to the school’s stock portfolio. 

But the adaptations and hits to enrollment aren’t just about revenues and expenses. They’re about education. 

“I hope readers take a second look at whether or not the time is right to get your college education,” Rubin said. “Losing 15 to 25 of students in higher education is sort of a massive loss. You look at the scale of that, you’ve gotta wonder as a believer in education whether or not that decision is right, especially given the economy we’re likely headed into.”