Smaller universities are reporting fewer cases of COVID-19 | Opinion

Nov 9, 2020

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist

By Bruce Murphy

As the COVID-19 pandemic surges around the country, health experts have pointed to the nation’s colleges and universities as a source of major outbreaks. There’s no doubt that large campuses housing hundreds, or even thousands, of students are contributing to an uptick in cases across many states. But that’s only part of the college pandemic story.

On the campuses of many smaller colleges, students are attending classes in person, with relatively few pandemic-related health issues. While we are all acutely aware that this could change at any time, it’s becoming increasingly clear that smaller colleges hold big benefits for students during the current health crisis. In fact, small campus environments uniquely position colleges and universities to address the pandemic, while ensuring that students remain on campus and on track to graduate as planned.

When students search for a college, it’s no secret that many are drawn to the large college experience — filled lecture halls, packed athletic stadiums and high-density student housing. Unfortunately, these attributes have become an Achilles heel for behemoth universities now seeking to reduce the population density that makes them more vulnerable to coronavirus outbreaks. To be sure, these institutions have done an admirable job at aiming to control the spread, canceling crowds at athletic events, switching to all virtual learning and more.

Yet, it’s obvious that when it comes to the pandemic, smaller colleges have an edge. An unintended educational consequence of the current situation is a leveling of the playing field between large and small colleges. Small campuses translate into lower population density, and with greater student supervision, better compliance with masking and social distancing mandates. In fact, it’s a big reason why many small universities in New Jersey are reporting few, or even no, cases of COVID-19 with the fall semester coming to a close.

A case in point is Centenary University, where I am president. Located in Hackettstown, we’re fortunate to have several factors working in our favor: small size, small classes by design and a rural environment that is not dependent on mass transportation. At our university, and many others, attributes like these have resulted in an extremely agile response to COVID-19 that benefits students. Here at Centenary, we introduced Centenary Choice, which gives students the ability to decide if they want to study in person, online or in a HyFlex format combining the two.

Offering multiple options for the classroom experience lowers population density on campus and allows students to play to their own comfort zones. The flexibility offered by smaller colleges across the country has translated into a positive effect on admissions. While the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recently reported a 16.1% decline in freshman enrollment at colleges and universities nationally, many smaller institutions seem to be bucking that trend. In fact, this fall, Centenary experienced a 17.5% increase in freshman enrollment.

Yet, the ability of small colleges to adapt to the pandemic goes way beyond numbers. Here in New Jersey, I’ve spoken with a number of independent college presidents, and they’re all saying the same thing: Current and potential students are finding greater academic value in the small college atmosphere.

At a time when students need more support than ever to continue their studies, small colleges are stepping up with opportunities for in-person instruction, enhanced academic programs, and personalized support systems. Faculty spend more time engaging one-on-one with students to address the unique challenges the pandemic has presented for individual students and their families. In addition, HyFlex courses have created opportunities to invite influential national-level speakers into virtual classrooms — an option that would have been prohibitively expensive for smaller colleges prior to the pandemic.

There’s no doubt that the pandemic has forever changed higher education and the way potential students will evaluate their college choices. As high school seniors go through the application process, they’ll be taking a second look at the universities that have kept students on campus while enriching instruction during the most serious public health crisis in a century. It’s a new era of higher education — and small colleges and universities are ready to lead the way.

Bruce Murphy, Ed.D. is president of Centenary University, a private liberal arts University in Hackettstown.