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Students express preference for return to campus, fall/spring semester combination in tri-semester model

Key findings from survey results released show strong preferences for on-campus semesters

Most University undergraduate students prefer on-campus experiences for the upcoming academic year, according to the results of the Undergraduate Student Preferences Survey on 2020-21 Academic Year Scenarios.

Sent to all returning undergraduate students May 17, the survey garnered an 84 percent response rate, accruing 4,475 responses. Another 1,234 incoming first-year students — 70 percent — also responded to the survey, which they received May 20.

The survey was developed to “gather information to guide and refine Brown’s plans for the fall in conjunction with a wide variety of additional factors, data points and considerations,” Provost Richard Locke P’18 wrote in a June 18 Today@Brown announcement regarding the key findings from the survey. 

Over 1,800 students also provided further comments in the survey, mostly regarding topics including the cost of attendance for the 2020-21 academic year, plans for ensuring the health and safety of the University and wider community, the impact of the various scenarios on summer employment, research and internship opportunities and relevant plans for events, gatherings and residential arrangements. 

The University is still considering three options for the 2020-21 academic year: a tri-semester model in which students would enroll in two semesters out of the three offered; an entirely remote fall with a decision about the spring semester to be made during the fall; or a normal academic calendar allowing all students to return to campus — an “optimistic scenario that is largely dependent on broader progress in testing and treatment,” Locke wrote. 

“Student preferences will serve as one factor in the complex effort to develop solutions that protect the health and safety of students, faculty, staff and the extended community, while maximizing teaching, learning and research operations to the greatest extent possible,” he wrote.

President Christina Paxson P’19 has committed to sharing an official decision on the University’s plans for the fall by July 15, The Herald previously reported.

Preferences for on-campus experiences

For each of the outlined options under consideration, the survey asked students whether they would choose to remain enrolled in the fall or would instead request a leave of absence or gap year. 

In the case of a fully remote fall semester, 47 percent of returning students and 60 percent of incoming first-years indicated that they would complete the term remotely. Under a normal, on-campus calendar, 84 percent of returning students and 93 percent of incoming first-years said that they would enroll and return to campus.

Among students who would be unable to return to campus due to travel restrictions or health considerations, exactly half of returning students said that they would complete the fall semester remotely, with the other half indicating that they were likely to request a leave or were undecided about their plans. Among incoming first-year students under either of these restrictions, 47 percent would enroll remotely, a quarter would request a gap year and 27 percent were unsure. 

Preferences under the tri-semester scenario

The survey also asked first-, second- and third-year students to indicate their top two semester combination preferences under the three-semester model.

An overwhelming proportion of these students — 85 percent of first-years, 87 percent of sophomores and 90 percent of juniors — identified the fall/spring semester combination as their first choice. The spring/summer combination was the “second-choice favorite” for 45 to 49 percent of students, followed closely by the fall/summer combination, which 33 to 42 percent of students selected as their second choice.

If offered the fall/spring combination, nearly 90 percent of each group — incoming first-years, sophomores and juniors — indicated that they would likely return to campus for both semesters. But students’ likely decisions varied more for the fall/summer and spring/summer options. 

Only 43 percent of juniors said they would take both semesters in person if they were given the fall/summer combination, with 22 percent planning to take the summer semester remotely and 27 percent indicating that they would instead request a leave of absence for the year. Two-thirds of incoming first years and 53 percent of sophomores said they would take both semesters in person if given this non-consecutive combination.

If offered the spring/summer option, over half of students in each year said they would return to campus for both semesters, but another 13 to 20 percent of students would take the summer semester remotely and nearly a quarter of juniors would not re-enroll for the year. 

Seniors were asked about their preferences for each semester separately, rather than for semester combination preferences. Most indicated that they would “expect to enroll in the fall and spring semesters and complete all graduation requirements before the summer,” according to the key findings report.

While the University has not yet released additional details on what a tri-semester model will look like, in her written testimony to the United States Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Paxson outlined elements of the University’s plan in the event that there is at least some on-campus learning in the fall, The Herald previously reported.

Classrooms, libraries and dining halls would be “reconfigured to enable social distancing” and large lectures would take place virtually. Residence halls would be “de-densified,” so that students would live in singles and bathrooms would be shared among fewer students.

Under this “de-densified residential scenario,” the University would also need to rent hotel rooms and implement further safety measures. And if following a tri-semester calendar, Locke said the University will likely need to hire more faculty to teach during the extra semester, The Herald previously reported.



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