Take Note: Ed. Policy Prof. Kevin Kinser On Colleges’ Pandemic Prep, The Need For Transparency

Aug 28, 2020

Penn State Education Policy Department Head Kevin Kinser.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, many students are returning to colleges and universities across the U.S. 

In central Pennsylvania, that includes Penn State, Pitt Bradford, and Juniata College. 

Kevin Kinser is a Penn State professor and head of the Department of Education Policy Studies. He’s a senior scientist at Penn State’s Center for the Study of Higher Education and has written several books about higher ed. 

We talked with him about why he thinks students should be staying home, and why schools that have brought students back need transparent plans for when COVID-19 cases start piling up.  

TRANSCRIPT:

Emily Reddy:

Welcome to Take Note on WPSU, I'm Emily Reddy. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, many students are returning to colleges and universities across the United States. In Central Pennsylvania that includes Penn State, Pitt Bradford and Juniata College. Kevin Kinser is a Penn State professor and head of the Department of Education Policy Studies. He's a senior scientist at Penn State's Center for the Study of higher education, and has written several books about higher ed. Kevin Kinser, thanks for talking with us.

Kevin Kinser:

Great, thanks for inviting me.

Emily Reddy:

So during this pandemic, we're seeing some colleges and universities going totally online. Others are totally in person. And there's everywhere in between. What's factoring into these decisions for you universities?

Kevin Kinser:

Well, money. Money is factoring into these decisions. I think it's... you can't ignore the impact that students have on the budgets that most universities have. Their presence here, not just in terms of taking classes and paying tuition, but for a residential college -- particularly like a place like Penn State -- that represents a lot of revenue coming in in terms of the residence hall contracts, food service, other activity fees that really rely on students being on campus. The second part of it is, people's jobs are dependent on people being on campus. So let's take faculty out of the picture for a second, we've got all the people working in student affairs and student services and other direct student activity kinds of roles that if students aren't here, it's really difficult for them to do their jobs and therefore really difficult for universities to keep paying them. So there's a real financial component to what's going on here.

Emily Reddy:

So is there anything we're seeing in common with the schools that are deciding to go online versus the schools that are deciding to meet in person?

Kevin Kinser:

Yeah, so I think in general, what you're saying is universities that are very well resourced are the ones that are able to say, okay, we can, we can stop, we don't have to bring people back, we can delay. Others are doing it when they are in states or in political situations where they're able to make the decision free of potential political consequences. The second category would be those institutions that don't rely as much on on-campus students for their revenue streams. So having students in person is not as significant of an impact for them, and they're able to make decisions differently. And then, of course, the third would be those institutions that are located in hotspot locations, that the community spread is just they're unable to ignore the consequences of having large groups of people together.

Emily Reddy:

So what do you think about these various decisions to decide to be online or decide to be in person?

Kevin Kinser:

Yeah. So I mean, it's it's a really difficult situation that universities are in. And for some places, it's, you know, it's existential, whether or not they can survive this or not. I was actually surprised, when this first happened I thought, you know, Penn State is in a pretty good position. They are a relatively well resourced university. They have a footprint across the Commonwealth that allows a lot of different varieties of spaces for students to operate in. It's not just one big campus, though University Park certainly represents that. And importantly they have probably one of the biggest online presences of any major research university, public research university, in the United States. And so they have a lot of experience in offering courses online and a lot of infrastructure already in place to do it. So I was kind of thinking okay, this is going to be a place where they're pretty quickly going to recognize that the best position for them to be in is to basically weather the storm. Start planning for a remote or blended learning experience and really plan on there being significant amount of online. I was wrong. That is not what happened. They made a different choice. And I think, again, the argument that how important it is for students to come back was really dominant in their decision making. I think other universities also made decisions based off of hopes and wishes, that we're relying on good decision making by 18 year olds. And I don't know if you remember being an 18-year-old, but that was not the point in time where I was making good decisions. And I think it's, you know, kind of, well, frankly, I think it's ridiculous to expect students to come back to campus and self isolate and social distance. That's not why students are coming to campus. They're not coming to campus to be by themselves. They're coming to campus to be with their peers.

Emily Reddy:

And in fact, before classes started, we've seen two fraternities suspended for having parties that broke Penn State's coronavirus guidelines and a party outside freshman dorms that also broke the rules.

Kevin Kinser:

Yeah, and we should expect that. Because the students don't come to campus to isolate and social distance. They come to being together with their peers. And that's why they're here. What we should be doing is thinking about what is the plan for when that happens? How do we make sure that we have situations in place to address those circumstances when they happen? Other universities have treated these as disciplinary issues and have moved very quickly towards suspension and expulsion for those students involved. I'm not 100% sure of exactly where Penn State is going with this. But at least the initial response has been more in the education element to say, "OK, this was not safe we want everyone who was involved to get tested. We're not turning this into a disciplinary circumstance yet for the individual students involved. But we really want to make sure that people are safe. And so we're asking people and requiring people to get tested because they were participating in these events." I think that's a good response. And I think that's a way that kind of acknowledges that you can't set up an adversarial relationship with your students. You can't set it up so that if something happens, they're going to get kicked out of school, because what you'll have is a peer effect where peers are not going to tell on their friends, because they don't want their friends to get kicked out. They're going to be hiding these things. They're still going to have the parties, but they're going to be done in a much more underground way. And it's going to be much more difficult to understand where the spread might be happening.

Emily Reddy:

So you said you have to prepare, knowing that rules will be broken. You know, what are the reactions to rule braking that would make sense?

Kevin Kinser:

Well, I think for one, just the preparation of it. So that situation at East Hall, and again, I'm looking at this from a sort of an outside perspective, that it took a long time for that to be brought under control. The staff in the residence halls, they're the only ones that are there at that time of night, and to recognize that you can't put the staff in that sort of circumstance to be able to control that. I mean, I can understand exactly why it happened. The students have shown up at classes, they're starting to get to know people. They look out their windows and see people downstairs out the window, and they're like, "Oh, people are out there. I want to go meet people." And more and more people come out and as more people come out, they start thinking, "Well, if everybody else is down there, why am I the the poor guy sitting upstairs by himself in his room." Right? "I want to go down and be social with people too." And so thinking about how to make sure that you recognize these effects are being seeded and try to disrupt them before they turn into these mass events. Setting up circumstances where people do have the opportunity to get together in different sorts of ways. Now, my background is in student affairs, that's how I got involved in higher education. I worked as a student activities coordinator for my first job. We get... there's this phrase, a Latin phrase called "in loco parentis," which basically means "in the place of your parents." And universities 50 years ago used to consider themselves to be supervisory to their students in the place of the parents. The parents weren't there, so the university was keeping control. We haven't done that for 50 years. And what universities, it seems like they're in the process of creating is this new version of in loco parentis, where they're trying to take this supervisory relationship towards the students. It didn't work then. It's not going to work now. I think you need to be really thinking about the partnerships that you have with students, and trying to make sure that when they do do things that are against the rules, that there's processes in place to help with the education and understanding what the consequences of those are -- not for the students as individuals, but for the community as a whole.

Emily Reddy:

And I mean, those the students we saw at that party, they were freshmen. And they were all here... in order to socially distance their move in, they were here several days before classes even started with nothing to do, huh?

Kevin Kinser:

Yeah, yeah. No, and it's, you know, and again, I really... I firmly believe and know that there was a lot of planning involved to try to think through how all this was going to work. But when push comes to shove, students are going to act like students. And I think the university should be prepared for that.

Emily Reddy:

So something like the contract that the university had students sign, there's no reason to think that that would change their actions?

Kevin Kinser:

Well, I mean, it'll change some students' actions, and some students might be a little bit more careful or cautious. But if all it took was putting out a document and saying students, "I pinkie swear that I'm not going to do something," we would have solved a whole host of what are called student issues and student problems a long time ago. We would no longer have binge drinking and sexual assault if all it took was for students to sign a pledge saying they promised not to. So, on the other hand, if that does work, then wow, do we have a great new tool, tool chest, toolbox to be able to address these issues. But students promise to do things all the time and don't follow through. It's in their nature. That is what they're going to do. And our responsibility in running universities is to really think through what that means for how we operate universities and the risk that we're taking inviting students back.

Emily Reddy:

So Penn State has decided to do this mix. I wonder if we could look at sort of the pros and cons of the different options. You know, there's the in-person class at Penn State, and elsewhere, where students and professors, they're gonna be wearing masks, students at least six feet apart. There was a picture from the Bryce Jordan Center with the students sort of peppering the the seats. So, no group work, we can assume. No professor going around to give one-on-one help. Masks. I mean, how much effect do we expect these modifications to have on the quality of that in-person education?

Kevin Kinser:

Well, I think it's a it's a hindrance. And whether it's major or minor probably depends on how you are as an instructor and a teacher, the size of your class, the kinds of engagements that you normally use, you know, sort of the personal attention that you're able to give students. I mean, at minimum, students aren't going to be able to see me smile in front of the classroom when I welcome them, right. That might seem a small thing, but for a freshman student coming in, who might be really nervous, to be able to see that the professor is friendly in different sorts of ways, seeing that their classmates are friendly.Those sorts of signals that we as humans use to judge our position, our social position, how other people are reacting to us, those are going to be hindered. And I think, by definition, it's going to hinder the classroom experience. The alternative would be, OK, let's move everything remotely. And in that case, you might still be able to have really robust conversations, but it's also going to be different, it's not going to be as spontaneous. People are going to have to be relying on technology that could go down as it did...

Emily Reddy:

It could go down on the first day...

Kevin Kinser:

It could go down on the first day. They're relying on their own internet connectivity. They're relying on being able to give those sorts of signals in a classroom environment. Relatively easy to do in a small class, you know 20, 25 students. But if you have a larger class -- 50, 75, 100 or more -- it's much more difficult to try to figure out how those signals are going to work out when you're in the online environment. So it's a trade off. And then the trade off also has to do with health concerns. And again, health concerns are bringing students back into this high density environment, where they're living together and socializing together in ways that, you know, are not that different from the cruise ship, for example. Those are environments where people are in close contact, and it's almost impossible to avoid it, both because the physical structures aren't set up for it very well, and also because that's not why people go on cruises. It's also not why people come to campus. They don't come to campus because they want to see Kevin Kinser in front of a classroom, right? They're coming to campus because they want to see their friends. They want to participate in the social life. They want to go to football games. They want to do all the kinds of things that being on campus allows you to do as a young person. And it's different for undergraduates than it would be for graduate students. It's different for adult students than it is for students straight out of high school. But that social experience is really a significant part of what's going on. And I think it's important that we recognize that that's really what's being lost in this. It's not so much what's going on in the classroom that's being lost. It's that external social experience that really is diminished.

Emily Reddy:

If you're just joining us this is Take Note on WPSU. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, many students are now returning to colleges and universities across the U.S. And we're talking with Kevin Kinzer, a Penn State professor and head of the Department of Education Policy Studies. So we did a story about the community and professors getting ready for students coming back. And what a lot of people said is there should be transparency. Transparency, we heard that over and over. How could transparency make this situation better, even with all else being the same?

Kevin Kinser:

Yeah, I was actually talking about this just this morning with another faculty member. And we were talking about if you don't have information, people will make up their own stories. If you only have partial information, people will fill in the blanks with their own information. And I think it's very important, even if the information is not fully developed, that people understand that this is stuff that's being worked on. Here are some preliminary plans. These are the things that we're working through. Here's what we've got finalized. Here's what we're still working through. I think transparency is vitally important for this. It's also important for it to be a fully engaged process. Penn State has engaged hundreds of people in this and still people feel like they don't really know what's going on. They may appreciate that there's a plan in place but really not clear on how that plan is actually supposed to get implemented. And I think it's a constant effort from the university and from people in positions of authority to continue to be able to explain what's going on. Here's a good example. So many people are wondering, OK, well, we're coming back. We're seeing universities, other universities making decisions not to come back. How is Penn State thinking about reversing its decision. What are the criteria that it's looking at?

Emily Reddy:

How many infections or how many? How many infections? How many deaths?

Kevin Kinser:

Yeah, exactly. What what are the what are the benchmarks that we're looking for? And? Yes, it's a complicated question. And it might be really difficult to make a very clear here are the exact benchmarks going on. But but I think it's important for people to know how are we making that decision? Who's involved in that decision? And also publicly releasing data that shows how close we are get to getting to those those numbers. I know that they have these numbers, but they're not being shared. They're not being distributed. The fact that we didn't have a dashboard of cases up until just very recently, is one indication of where information was lacking. That the athletics with practices that were happening over the summer, were not on a regular basis -- on a daily basis, even -- releasing information on infections, unlike other institutions. I mean, some of the reasons the institutions closed like they did, is because the information about how widespread infections were on campus was public. It was publicly announced. And I think if those aren't made public, if we don't have that information, people are going to be wondering whether information is being withheld. Penn State is is largely not known for its transparency. And I think this is just one of those indications of where that lack of transparency has really harmed its ability to prepare fully for the reality that we're in.

Emily Reddy:

What do you think of that dashboard, now that it does exist? It tracks positives, negatives and pending tests by campus and by students versus employees. Updating once a week. How does that... is that transparent?

Kevin Kinser:

Well, it is a form of transparency. I don't know that there's any reason why it wouldn't be updated more frequently than that. Why some of the key health markers, for instance percent positivity tests, things like that, should be explicitly noted. Understanding where clusters are happening. You know, perhaps these are in play. You know, I want to be clear, I'm not talking about this because I have any particular inside knowledge to this. It's more thinking about it from the perspective of OK, what what is the information that universities ought to provide, to make sure that their their social compact with their community remains intact, that people really do trust that they're looking out for the best interests of the members of the community, and not simply making it about we have to get the money? Because if we don't get the money, then our entire house of cards collapses.

Emily Reddy:

What else do you think universities should provide to make their decisions transparent? To make the community feel like it's informed?

Kevin Kinser:

Yeah. Well, I wish when... Well, first of all, I think when the decision was made, to come back into campus, they should have been ready right then to roll out many of these kinds of policies that took them a long time to get. We didn't know what our room capacity was. We didn't know what kind of teaching we would be doing. All of these were things like OK, now we're coming back. Now we're going to put these plans into place. There was no reason a lot of the planning that we did right after that June decision couldn't have been done in May. The idea of saying, OK, let's make some decisions as faculty about are you going to be comfortable teaching in person? What will these in-person courses look like? How do we go remote? What decisions do we have to make about classroom size and social distancing? All of this information was known, late April, early May. But we didn't have those explicit conversations and needed to wait until the university made that decision. So having the plans in place and making sure that people are confident that we're not just making a decision and now saying, OK, now we have to make it happen. But we've actually assessed whether or not we can make it happen. And here was the assessment and here's why we we believe that we can make it happen because we've done these other pieces. I mean, up until last week, conversations were still happening about what do we do about people who have not done their pre-arrival testing. And to me you should have expected that, you know, I would have anticipated at least a third of the respondents, or the people requested to do pre-arrival testing wouldn't have responded for one reason or another. So having those plans in place, and when you hear that this is happening, and now they're trying to decide what happens, it gives less confidence that everything has really been worked through. You know, and again, this is not to disparage the people who have put in untold hours this summer.

Emily Reddy:

One, I don't know, freedom, I one thing that Penn State did that I didn't see everywhere... I heard stories about other universities not doing is letting professors decide how they were going to teach. Whether they wanted to teach in person or remotely.

Kevin Kinser:

Yeah, I really appreciate that they were letting faculty make those kinds of decisions, to greater or lesser levels of pressure to make one decision versus another decision. And I think, you know, this kind of goes into what some people perceived as mixed messaging. Yes, we're coming back in person but faculty can make decisions. And do we have enough in-person classes? And where are there in-person classes? You throw into the mix that decision about international students...the visas for international students requiring in-person classes that happened in July, and that was two weeks of complete disruption in the planning process. But it is that sort of example of where the university has a responsibility to provide in-person classes sufficient to justify students coming back to campus and where they can leave those decisions up to faculty to make the decisions that are in in what they consider both their personal health reasons best interest, as well as what they feel like they can do best for their students and the particular materials they deliver.

Emily Reddy:

So you're a department head, what are you hearing from the professors who you work with or the students that they're teaching? We've had a couple of days of classes now.

Kevin Kinser:

Yeah. Well, yesterday from our department's perspective went off without a hitch. I heard no reports of there being any issues. I have yet to hear today, Tuesday, when we're recording this, I have yet to hear of anything that's happened today. I mean, of course, there have been some instances of professors saying silly things or doing stupid things in their classes, but I think the most...

Emily Reddy:

How do you mean?

Kevin Kinser:

Oh, you know, just making, you know, statements about, "Oh, it's not really necessary to wear a mask" or something like that. Or, you know, "I want you to feel comfortable here. So if you need to take off your mask for a little bit, that's okay." Or ranting against the requirement that we wear masks. You know, things along those lines that kind of go beyond what their, you know, their scholarly responsibility should be for delivering course materials. But for the most part, you know, people are taking this seriously. People understand...in the classroom and on the campus. People understand that this is something we have to do. While the student compact, when it first came out, with what looked very much like a blanket liability waiver in there. Many students were really upset by that and felt like that there was no way that they could sign off on it. Those that actually read it because it was set up as a click-through, originally. So I know many, many people just treated it like that end user agreement on software. You just click it to use it. You don't pay any attention to what it says.

Emily Reddy:

And that compact saying, you know, I'm going to follow the rules, wear my mask, and I understand that I could get sick or die. And it's not Penn State's fault, is roughly what that says.

Kevin Kinser:

Right. The compact only allowed students to accept it. There was nothing that they could do to say, well wait a minute, I don't accept this.

Emily Reddy:

And they didn't have access to certain back end things that they needed to do classes if they if they didn't accept it.

Kevin Kinser:

And to the university's credit they recognized the flaw in the way that they set this up, and they changed it and set up a process for doing it differently.

Emily Reddy:

We did see a student die this summer of COVID-19, a Penn State student, which I really haven't heard much talk about. I guess because it was the summer, there weren't any classes happening. But this was a Penn State student living in State College who did get sick in State College and went home and died.

Kevin Kinser:

Yeah. And you know what -- and again, I don't have the full details on this so I know from the news stories as much as anyone does -- but it certainly sounded like that student got sick, and called their parents and decided to go home. They didn't say, "Oh, I should let the university know." So the university didn't really know about this, essentially, until the student died. Which meant that there was about two weeks of community spread going on based on what the student did, and the university had no idea. And I think that's an important lesson to take from this. So students coming, if they get sick, rather than isolating, they're probably going to call mom and dad. And they may get in their car. Or they may get on the bus and go home. Or have their parents come and pick them up, rather than going through the potential of having to isolate by themselves in a room. You already have students that are probably pretty freaked out about coming to a big university like Penn State, particularly in this environment. Some students are just going to want to go home. And they're not going to want to tell the official university people that they don't know, that they've never seen before, that they have no contact with. They're not going to trust or want to see those people. They're gonna want to see people that they know and that they love and know that they're going to be taken care of.

Emily Reddy:

Is this a watershed moment for higher education?

Kevin Kinser:

Well, there's a lot of universities that are going to find it very difficult to survive this period unless there's some significant influx of resources. They just simply don't have the backstop of endowment and an alumni base that a place like Penn State does. So it's a watershed moment in terms of really making it clear which universities are really financially viable and can continue. The in-person classes and spaces that a place like Penn State has, my assessment of this is that that will come roaring back once the once the coronavirus has been put under control. Because it's not like the demand for this kind of experience has gone away. It's not like people have said, "Oh, that's not necessary anymore." Sure, there's going to be some people that might say that, but most people are emphasizing more how important the in-person component is.

Emily Reddy:

Which schools do you expect are going to have the hardest time of this? Is it the, you know, the small liberal arts schools with high tuition and a lot of students from other countries?

Kevin Kinser:

Yeah. So an institution that relies heavily on international students to make its budget is going to have a difficult time, because I think that's going to take some time before that comes back. Any institution that was already financially strapped, enrollment dependent, tuition dependent institution that was already discounting its tuition heavily in order to make its classes meet. I mean we were already in a circumstance where some small private colleges were struggling for survival. Increasing mergers and closures were already happening. And I think that's part of what we'll be seeing as well.

Emily Reddy:

What do you think any long term effects might be of, first, the shutdown, and now this modified form of education using either Zoom or in-person masking and distancing, might be?

Kevin Kinser:

From Penn State's perspective, it's hard for me to say what the long term impact is going to be. It really depends on how the university has been able to conserve its resources through this model. I mean, I think another reason to have not opened would be the millions of dollars that Penn State and other universities have spent in order to get the appropriate space design that they need and the PPEs that they need. I wish that we could have figured out a way of saying instead of spending that money to bring college students back, we should be spending that money to support the local school districts. I wish we have been able to turn our expertise outward and say we at Penn State are ready to support our communities in this effort and making sure our communities are safe. Our students can come back at a later time, but if our communities are not here, and if our communities are not successful, then we as an institution can't be successful. You know, other places, other places made decisions pretty early on to say, "Alright, let's make plans for remote instruction and make sure that that's good." And so they didn't spend all that money. University of North Carolina, for example, spent a lot of money to come back. And within a week they were back to remote anyway. That's really... I think that's really the worst case scenario, to spend all these resources planning to come back and getting everything set up to come back, and then finding out in a week or two that its all for not, and we have to go back remote so quickly. Because students do what students do.

Emily Reddy:

Kevin Kinzer, thanks for talking with us.

Kevin Kinser:

Sure, thank you.

Emily Reddy:

Kevin Kinser is a Penn State professor and head of the Department of Education Policy Studies. He's a senior scientist at Penn State's Center for the Study of higher education, and has written several books about higher ed. He talked with us about colleges and universities across the U.S. and their decisions about whether or not to resume in-person classes while COVID-19 continues to spread. You can hear more Take Note interviews at WPSU.org/takenote. From my home studio, I'm Emily Reddy, WPSU.