Coronavirus and US College Reopenings: Schools Split Between On-Campus and Hybrid Learning

Coronavirus and US College Reopenings: Schools Split Between On-Campus and Hybrid Learning
David A. Litman/Shutterstock

BeenVerified Team
Updated August 5, 2020

As states consider rolling back openings as coronavirus cases surge across the country, many U.S. colleges and universities have made last-minute changes on whether they will meet in person, online, or through a combination of distance learning and on-campus education.

BeenVerified analyzed data from more than 1,200 private and public four-year universities across the country, examined several top universities to see how plans for fall education are firming up, and looked into whether tuition freezes or reductions are on offer.

Our results show that less than half of universities plan for students to be on-campus this fall—but most private universities still plan to offer a return to campus in the fall. Yet most top-rated academic universities are planning online learning or a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning.

Despite the economic upheaval in the aftermath of the pandemic, most top schools have no plans to freeze or reduce tuition in the fall—except for historically Black colleges.

Our top findings:

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Top take-aways

  • By the end of July, a number of colleges recalibrated school reopening plans. Fifty-two percent of colleges in our analysis originally planned for in-person learning, but as the pandemic continues to surge across the country less than half (48%) are now planning for a traditional in-person only return.
  • Most U.S. colleges and university programs remain divided over reopening plans. Our data shows just under half the nation’s colleges and universities still plan to offer in-person learning, 35% plan a combination of in-person and distance learning, 14% will be online only, and 3% of schools are still reviewing.
  • Private colleges are still most likely to offer in-person classes only. Private colleges and universities are by far the largest group still planning in-person classes—58% of private schools are planning to be on-campus versus 38% of public universities.
  • Public universities are more likely to keep their distance. Nineteen percent of public universities are planning online-only classes this fall, compared to 8% of private colleges. As much as 41% of public institutions are planning for a hybrid system of on-campus and distance learning, compared to 29% of private colleges.
  • States most likely to be on-campus are in the South and Midwest. States with the highest percentage of universities scheduled to meet in person include Wyoming, South Dakota, Mississippi, North Dakota and Missouri. States more likely to have online-only education in the fall include Delaware, California, New Mexico, Alaska and Washington.

Looking at several top schools by category (Ivy League; top-revenue college football schools; and top-ranked public, private, liberal arts and historically Black colleges and universities), a more nuanced picture appears on school openings, as well as offers of tuition freezes or discounts:

  • Three out of 10 top football schools will be on campus this fall. Schools that draw the highest revenue from their football programs were evenly split between in-person education and a hybrid model in mid-July. Now 7 out of 10 plan for a hybrid model.
  • Most top academic schools favor the hybrid approach. Six out of eight Ivy League universities plan a combination of in-person and online learning this year, as do half of the 10 top-ranked historically Black colleges and universities. More than half of the top-ranked liberal arts and top national schools plan a hybrid model in the fall.
  • Top public universities are split between hybrid and online-only learning. Forty percent of top public universities are planning for hybrid learning, while the other 40% will be online only.
  • Most top schools are not freezing or discounting tuition. Sixty percent of historically Black schools will either freeze (40%) or discount (20%) tuition, and 30% of top liberal arts colleges and top-revenue football schools plan tuition freezes.

“With the rising tide of coronavirus cases and lack of consensus on the best way to open universities, students are facing a stressful—and in many cases, uncertain—start to the academic year,” said Michael Pugh, a data analyst for BeenVerified. “That’s especially true for families with children attending different schools in the fall.”

Our study uses data from private and state four-year universities across the nation collected by The Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as a look at top academic schools as determined by 2020 U.S. News & World Report college rankings, and the 10 most profitable football programs, according to Forbes magazine. (See methodology for more information.)

Most public universities plan to offer a hybrid model compared to private schools

Private universities are, by a wide margin, planning to be on-campus this fall compared to public universities. Forty-one percent of public universities are planning a hybrid model, which aims for a combination of distance learning with smaller on-campus class sizes, compared to 29% of private schools.

“Private schools—many of which were in difficult financial straits even before the pandemic hit—are likely feeling more pressure to provide an ‘on-campus experience’ to justify their higher tuition,” Pugh said. “Public universities have taxpayer money to draw on and need to take fewer risks to survive the pandemic.”

Private vs. public colleges reopening plans comparison chart

Top states that plan to be on-campus vs. online

As our results show, there is a wide variety of approaches planned for the fall depending on the state. Wyoming and South Dakota are the only states where all of the local universities in our data set plan to be on-campus in the fall, followed by Mississippi and North Dakota.

On the other hand, Alaska, Delaware, New Mexico and Nevada are states in which none of the local colleges plan to offer on-campus learning for the fall.

Online-only approaches to the new academic year are much less common. Delaware and California are the two states where a majority of universities plan to offer only distance learning this fall, followed by New Mexico (43%), Alaska (33%) and Washington (28%).

“With the recent surge of coronavirus cases in California, the move to online learning makes sense—yet states that have experienced similar surges, such as Texas and Florida, are not following suit,” Pugh said.

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Top states where colleges will be on-campus table

Bottom states where college will be on-campus table

Top states where colleges will be online-only table

Top schools plan a hybrid or online-only approach

Most top-ranked universities plan to offer a hybrid or online-only approach. While a number of schools with high revenue-generating football programs have reverse course on plans to fully return in-person, 30% still plan a traditional return to campus in the fall. “With the cash at stake with these programs, the pressure is enormous to come back to campus this fall,” Pugh said. “Still, there are lingering doubts what shape the fall college football season will take this year.”

Top colleges reopening plans comparison chart

Most colleges divided on reopening plans chart

Tuition discounts rare—except for historically Black schools

Looking only at tuition and fees (not room and board), most top schools plan to maintain annual tuition increases for the 2020–2021 academic year.

“With the convergence of the economic crisis with the coronavirus, the fact that most top universities don’t plan to freeze or discount tuition will undoubtedly be a concern for some families,” Pugh said. “On the other hand, preparing for both on-campus and distance learning in some ways doubles the work for college staff and faculty.”

College tuition discounts by school category chart


BeenVerified used data collected by The Chronicle of Higher Education to compare the current status of 1,269 schools and universities. Data was downloaded July 31, 2020. To choose top universities to examine, we used the 2020 U.S. News & World Report list of top schools in each category. For our examination of universities with top football programs, we used Forbes magazine’s 2019 list of College Football’s Most Valuable Teams.

List of schools in each category are:

Ivy League: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania and Yale University.

Top private schools (outside the Ivy League): Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, University of Chicago, California Institute of Technology, University of Notre Dame, Vanderbilt University, Rice University, Washington University in St. Louis and Emory University.

Top public schools: University of California at Berkeley, University of California at Irvine, University of California at Los Angeles, University of California at San Diego, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Florida, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Virginia and Georgia Institute of Technology.

Top liberal arts schools: Amherst College, Bowdoin College, Carleton College, Claremont Colleges, Middlebury College, Pomona College, Swarthmore College, Wellesley College, Williams College, and Washington and Lee University.

Historically Black colleges and universities: Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, Hampton University, Howard University, Morehouse College, North Carolina A&T State University, Spelman College, Xavier University of Louisiana, Tuskegee University, Claflin University and Fisk University.

Top revenue football programs: University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, The Ohio State University, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, University of Alabama, University of Georgia, University of Oklahoma, University of Florida, University of Notre Dame and Auburn University.

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