Higher education is in limbo because of the coronavirus pandemic, but according to a campus-wide email that Chancellor Glenn Boyce sent on April 29, the university will make a decision concerning fall classes by June 30.
“The university is developing contingency plans for a range of scenarios for the Fall 2020 semester,” Provost Noel Wilkin said. “Additionally, we are gathering information to plan for each scenario, including options that would involve bringing people back to campus with safety precautions in place.”
Several university deans and professors said those contingency plans range from conducting fall semester classes in person with social distancing measures, to continuing classes entirely online to starting students online and then transitioning them back on campus at some point during the semester.
Members of the incoming class of 2024 at Ole Miss are weighing their options as well. Some are considering unenrolling from the university if classes remain online through the fall semester to either enroll in a different school or take a gap year before beginning college.
“If fall classes end up being online, I would unenroll from UM for the semester, if that’s possible, and attend a local community college,” Madison Loker, an incoming criminal justice major from Maryland, said. “It would be irresponsible of me to pay out-of-state tuition when I could take the same classes at a community college for a fraction of the price.”
Still, Loker said she would certainly “be the first one to reenroll” as soon as the university allowed students back on campus.
Wilkin said the university is aware of these potential student concerns.
“The impact of the pandemic is leading many prospective students to defer until very late in the process before deciding where they will go to college,” he said. “For that reason, we continue to engage with prospective students and families as they seek to consider their options, and we are making it clear to our applicants how much we hope they decide to join us in Oxford.”
Owen Elwonger, an incoming general business major from Greensboro, North Carolina, said it was not likely that he would switch to a school closer to home or take a gap year, but he said these were still possibilities.
“I definitely wouldn’t do that for the long term at least,” he said.
Elwonger said that he thinks that tuition should be lower for both in-state and out-of-state students if classes continue operating solely online in the fall “for the sake of fairness.” Like Loker, he thinks that he would not be getting as much value out of his enrollment at Ole Miss online as he would be in-person.
However, Robert Kelchen, a Seton Hall University professor who studies financial access to higher education, recently told MarketWatch that most universities can not afford to reduce or refund tuition while they are still paying employees.
Wilkin said the university has not furloughed or fired any employees because of the effects of coronavirus pandemic.
“To date, no university employees have been furloughed or ‘let go,’” Wilkin said. “We are considering options that might be necessary to deal with the financial and operational impact of the pandemic on our operations in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.”
Another concern that some high school seniors who are planning to attend Ole Miss in the fall are facing is that of educational preparedness.
According to the most recently available enrollment statistics, Ole Miss enrolls students from every state and almost 100 different countries. Because of this, the education students have before ever arriving on campus can vary greatly among students.
Elizabeth Hanaway, an incoming freshman biology major from Birmingham, Alabama, said she worries about the education gap among incoming students widening because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“That’s a problem I definitely think we’ll see,” Hanaway said. “I was luckily taking several AP (Advanced Placement) classes this semester, but now the exams have been shortened, so even if I do pass my exams, I don’t know that I’ll use them because I don’t know that they’re really going to be a true indicator of what ability I had.”
Lexi Abrams, an incoming education major from Canton, Georgia, said she feels the same way.
“Not only is it hard to learn online, our school is ending a month early, so that cuts out a month’s worth of learning that would’ve prepared me for my college classes,” Abrams said.
Elwonger said his high school in North Carolina is not issuing any grades for the fourth quarter of the year.
“You don’t have to do the work unless you just want to do it for the learning, which kind of hurts me also,” he said. “I’m not truly getting taught the stuff I need to know for the fourth quarter.”
Another concern Elwonger said he and his friends are facing — even those who are attending other colleges — is deciding which classes to register for. Like most upperclassmen who experienced traditional, on-campus orientation, freshmen usually register for classes with a group of other students and their academic advisor present.
This year, however, freshman orientation will be conducted completely online over the summer through Zoom sessions with the same orientation groups they would have met in person.
“I have a friend who is a freshman business major (at Ole Miss) this year, so she gave me a list of classes I should take. Other than that, though, the university hasn’t really given us advice on how to register for classes,” Elwonger said. “I think I could find my academic advisor if I wanted to and reach out, but the university hasn’t directly given that to me or anything.”
Every incoming freshman who told The Daily Mississippian about his or her experience during the pandemic said that the university and individual schools have communicated well with the incoming class about expectations and plans for the fall semester.
TaMiya Temple, who is an incoming freshman business major like Elwonger, said that while she is nervous for the fall semester, whether conducted in-person or online, she is looking forward to orientation via Zoom.
“I’m glad we’ll still get to see new faces and meet people in that way,” she said. “And it has helped that the university has done an especially good job with keeping us informed.”