The California State University system recently announced that it’s preparing to move almost all classes online for the fall semester. This is big news. After all, the Cal State system educates more than 500,000 students—almost five percent of college students in the United States.
So what does that mean for the rest of the nation’s colleges and universities?
At this point, we’re not quite sure. It stands to reason that Cal State’s decision could serve as impetus for more schools to announce similar policies. But it’s not quite that simple. Despite its size, Cal State is uniquely situated to move classes online for a few reasons:
- Commuter culture — More than sixty percent of Cal State freshmen commute, and even fewer upperclassmen live on campus. This means the policy change will have a far smaller impact on student life than it would at residential colleges.
- Existing infrastructure — Cal State already offers extensive online degree and course options. Moving the majority of coursework online will still be a big project, but Cal State is expanding on already existing pedagogy and technology, rather than building an entire online curriculum from scratch.
- Local government — California’s response to COVID-19 has been amongst the strictest in the country. As a state-run system, it makes sense that Cal State’s response to coronavirus has been particularly prudent.
- Enrollment — Cal State hasn’t struggled with enrollment recently. And they serve a fairly specific population. The majority of their students are local, and in-state tuition is around $7,000 a year. (In contrast, a year at NYU, before room and board, is around $55,000. Convincing students to pay more than $25,000 for a semester of online coursework is going to be a tougher sell.)
- Faculty — Cal State faculty are unionized, and their contract is up this year. This means administrators were able to make this decision without major input from faculty (or their union). Colleges that operate under more traditional committee governance are going to face major pushback from wary faculty.
Cal State’s decision certainly sets a precedent of sorts—and might make other schools more confident announcing similar changes—but, for now, we don’t expect the rest of the nation’s colleges to immediately follow suit. It’s still too early to make major predictions, but we’re monitoring the situation closely, and as we move into summer will be here to help you parse further announcements and predict ripple effects.