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I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. As the Covid-19 crisis continues, here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Relax. This isn’t another article urging undergrads to take a gap year rather than enroll for what inevitably will be a less-than-ideal college experience, even under the most optimistic scenarios. Sure, gap years can be great. But news-media fawning over them aside, I also recognize that gap years are, as the Lumina Foundation president Jamie Merisotis recently argued, “a fantasy for the vast majority of students” who lack the financial resources, flexibility, and family support to pursue them.

Still, gap years are my inspiration this week. That’s because, in many ways, the 2020-21 academic year looks like an ideal time for colleges themselves to borrow from the creative approaches some outside programs are taking. Colleges have the chance to fashion a different kind of academic year, one that is adaptable to the uncertainties of face-to-face teaching and reflective of the unique circumstances we’re all in. After all, if a deadly global pandemic, sweeping protests over racial injustice, and growing recognition of the schisms of income inequality don’t add up to a teachable moment deserving of a new kind of higher-ed experiment, what would?

The gap-year programs that intrigue me are the ones that will be operating in virtual mode with academic components. Take the nonprofit Global Citizen Year, which has ditched its international service-learning postings for 2020-21 and instead is offering students a remote semester of mentor-guided community-based projects and training in leadership and mindfulness. The Global Citizen Academy, as it’s called, will also include online academic work developed in conjunction with the Minerva Project and delivered on its platform.

The Virtual Gap Program that Champlain College, in Vermont, just rolled out is another interesting model. (I especially appreciate how the college introduces the idea on its website, acknowledging: “This is admittedly a weird time.”) Developed by the college’s faculty members and administrators, the program will offer up to six academic credits, an online lecture series with “big thinkers,” and a supervised virtual internship.

Champlain is charging $6,800 for the full 15-week program; regular tuition is $21,000 a semester. To Merisotis’s point about costs, that’s not nothing. But for students admitted to Champlain, federal financial aid is an option. The Global Citizen Academy costs up to $7,500, but with a sliding scale, low-income students could pay as little as $500 to participate.

That program is the “purpose year” Abby Falik was still fleshing out when I spoke with her, in April, about the “alt-fall.” While it won’t have the on-the-ground global experience that Falik has championed since founding the organization more than a decade ago, she still expects it will include “global perspectives.” The program is aimed at students “who see the world coming apart and want to fix it,” Falik told me. “It’s a response to the moment.”

That’s the kind of response I wish more colleges were crafting — especially as so many campus leaders seem to be just crossing all their fingers and toes that they can get to Thanksgiving without another abrupt shutdown and remote pivot. Can colleges really handle another round of those logistical and financial disruptions, never mind the likely backlash from students and their families, not to mention faculty and staff members?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what such experiments would entail. But in the same way that existing gap-year programs are getting more academic right now, colleges could move a bit closer to gap-year models. Rather than forge ahead with a semester that stands a good chance of being interrupted, why not do something different from the start?

I know, residential colleges need residential students to make the numbers work. But surely there’s also room for other options designed for a world without a Covid-19 vaccine that depends on students’ following distancing rules. (Uh, have you ever met a 19-year-old?) Might not a mix of interdisciplinary online courses tied to the issues of the day and a set of additional credit-bearing learning experiences — like virtual internships or supervised independent research projects — make more sense this year?

Yes, it would take a lot of work by professors and others already exhausted by the spring and summer terms. And there’s not that much time left. But there are plenty of reasons to think this through.

In fact, it is precisely because of Covid-19 and the national urgency over racism that Paul Quinn College’s president, Michael Sorrell, is eager to get started on an experimental program — also with Minerva — to offer a new experience-based leadership and public-policy program that will be delivered remotely this fall. Especially at a historically black institution like his, Sorrell said, it’s important that graduates “not just be effective in the streets, but also in the boardroom.”

The Paul Quinn curriculum is still being developed. (More details to come on this in a few weeks once it’s formally announced.) And it’s not too late for other colleges to try something, too, to respond to the moment. At the very least, experiments like that would offer an alternative to wary students and families and be more immune to a second Covid-19 wave than are the plans many colleges are now scrambling to make.

Please join me on Monday for a virtual forum on equity in remote learning.

When colleges pivoted online this spring, the experience was especially difficult for students without reliable internet and technology, dedicated places to study, tools for professional and peer advising, and other resources that a campus provides. Now, as some colleges prepare for a remote fall — and others expect at least some additional online teaching — ensuring equity remains a major challenge.

In this virtual forum, on Monday, June 29, at 2 p.m., Eastern time, experts with a diverse set of experiences will join me to discuss the policies and strategies that provosts, deans, and other campus leaders should consider to make remote learning more equitable. My guests will be: Alison Byerly, president of Lafayette College; Joe May, chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District; and Enrique Murillo Jr., a professor of education at California State University at San Bernardino and executive director of its Latino Education and Advocacy Days.

We’ll be answering your questions and exploring issues like how colleges should evaluate existing online courses and programs for access and inclusion, and what support systems are needed to help instructors along the way.

Sign up here to participate live, or watch later on demand.

I’m taking some time off this week, but the usual sentiment still stands: Hope you’re staying safe, sane, and humane. And please, stick with the science and wear that mask when you can’t stay six feet away.

Goldie’s picks.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, or sign up to receive your own copy, you can do so here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.





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