While the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down colleges across Queens for the summer and completely restructured instruction, it hasn’t stopped them from trying to make the best of the moment.
Not only are universities and community colleges alike saying that they are planning to maintain the same amount of summer course offerings through distance learning, some are seeing the crisis as an opportunity to offer new classes and try to boost their enrollment.
Both Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology and St. John’s University say they have adapted course offerings for the summer to online learning at least for the first summer session. The only classes that LaGuardia Community College cut were its instrument-based music classes. Queens College even sent out a press release boasting over 600 courses including some new ones designed to address the coronavirus itself.
But for public universities, the picture painted by the robust summer course offerings is not quite as rosy as it appears on first glance. The obstacles that colleges are facing from the pandemic go beyond the challenge of adapting to online instruction to potential budget cuts down the line.
While the governor’s state budget did not include cuts to public university spending as severe as some expected, it did give Gov. Cuomo the power to make cuts to individual agencies for fiscal year 2021 in response to shortfalls in city and state revenue.
David Gerwin, chairman of Queens College’s chapter of the Professional Staff Congress, CUNY’s union, says this looming threat, combined with lower than expected enrollment in the spring, is part of what is motivating the Flushing school to take a creative approach toward its summer course catalogue.
“In part that’s because we really want to help students and in part that’s because the university has really pushed hard for us to have as much summer enrollment as possible to make up for the difficult financial situation in the spring and the expected financial cuts in the fall,” Gerwin said.
Queens College is not alone in its push to use the move toward online instruction as an opportunity to drive summer enrollment. LaGuardia Community College interim Vice President of Student Affairs Bartholomew Grachan said while enrollment is tough to predict, he wouldn’t be surprised to see it go up this summer.
“We are anticipating, to some degree, that there will be students who don’t want to go back and spend $60,000 a year at their private institution or out-of-state institution, who might be interested in a semester or year locally at a very reasonable cost,” Grachan said.
York College and Queensborough Community College did not respond to requests for information for this article.
At Queens College, COVID-related offerings include an anthropology course on historical pandemics as well as two urban studies courses that focus on crafting policy and research to address the pandemic.
But the creativity is not relegated to timely course matter. Gerwin, a secondary education instructor as well as a union rep, said that while summer curriculum in his department normally centers on beginning education courses that focus on observing city schools as they undergo six-week march to the Regents exams, the administration has encouraged teachers to pitch new ideas.
“My department is offering more courses in the summer than I think it really ever has,” he said, adding that he sees this trend in other departments as well. The only remaining question will be whether the courses can meet the enrollment threshold to stay alive.
Beyond subject matter, professors are being given an opportunity to experiment with course structure. Gerwin expects to see a rise in asynchronous classes, which don’t have a set meeting time. Instead they revolve around video lectures or weekly deadlines that students can perform on their own schedule. The flexibility has made them popular.
If enrollment does tick up, it will help the college earn some needed revenue to weather the potential for cuts in the fall. While Queens College’s 2020 funding reserves were projected to be just over $3 million at the beginning of the year, Gerwin said that surplus had been erased by low enrollment this spring.
Its current economic outlook withstanding, Queens College’s summer plans agree with the guidance of the Professional Staff Congress, which said last week that the colleges should not be rushing into pre-emptive cuts before Cuomo announces any.
This article originally misstated the focus of secondary education summer courses at Queens College. We regret the error.