Elissa Nadworny

Enrollment at U.S. community colleges has dropped nearly 8% this fall, newly released figures show, part of an overall decline in undergraduate enrollment as students face a global pandemic and the worst economic recession in decades.

Often, enrollment in higher education spikes in times of high unemployment and recession as students seek additional job skills and postpone entering the workforce. But the pandemic has overturned those traditional calculations, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks college enrollment.

Monday, Sept. 21, was supposed to mark the start of in-person classes for New York City's 1.1 million public school students. It was the only big-city district planning to start the school year in person. But with just four days to go, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced that only the youngest students, in 3-K and Pre-K, and those with significant special needs, would be coming back on Sept. 21. The rest of the students will phase in by grade level between through Oct. 1.

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A university that many researchers have touted as a potential model for reopening campuses to in-person classes is hitting some bumps in the road. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had implemented a mass coronavirus testing program for staff and students in an effort to keep virus spread on campus under control.

As the fall semester gets underway, college students are reuniting with their friends, getting (re)acquainted with campus and doing what college students often do: partying. But in the time of the coronavirus, as more parties surface university administrators have been quick to condemn — and even berate — the behavior of students.

"Be better. Be adults. Think of someone other than yourself," pleaded a letter to students at Syracuse University following a large gathering on campus.

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On the morning of Friday, Aug. 14, The Daily Tar Heel newsroom got a tip: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was about to announce clusters of positive coronavirus cases in student housing, after only a week of in-person classes. The student-led independent newspaper broke the news before the university sent its campus-wide alert.

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The excitement in the air at the University of Georgia is palpable, with move-in days for the fall semester finally here. There are packed cars, overstuffed suitcases, a white shag rug, an old grey futon and a potted succulent named Susie.

But nestled between the familiar college accessories were stark reminders of the coronavirus pandemic: Boxes of cleaning supplies. Masks. Hand sanitizer.

When the pandemic hit the state of Washington, it took Patricia Lopez's job as a medical assistant with it. Not having a college degree made it especially hard to find a new job, as so many employers were making cuts and tightening budgets.

Lopez applied for unemployment benefits — she'd need money to support her two kids and her mother, who lives with her — and signed up for classes at the local community college.

The Department of Justice accused Yale University of violating federal civil rights law by illegally discriminating against Asian American and white applicants in its undergraduate admissions process.

Those are the findings of a two-year investigation conducted in response to a complaint by a coalition of Asian American groups. The Justice Department notified university officials in a letter on Thursday.

When Irem Ozturk got the email from Dickinson College in mid-June announcing "we intend to bring all students back to campus," she was elated. She's originally from Turkey, but after two years on campus, she's come to think of Carlisle, Pa., as home. "I was thrilled because I felt like I was returning back home, excited to see friends and faculty," she says. "I felt happy. I felt like I had something to look forward to."

That happiness lasted a little more than a month.

There's a lot Andy Tu was looking forward to as a freshman at Claremont McKenna College, a small private college in California. He imagined having intellectual debates on the quad and meeting "highly motivated, open-minded friends." Coming from an environment that's "intolerant of unconventional ideas," he says he was looking forward to being able to express himself freely on campus. He'd even been daydreaming about learning how to surf.

But every morning he wakes up at home in Shanghai, he feels like that iconic American freshman year is slipping further and further away.

When asked if he could imagine a college party where everyone is wearing masks, Jacques du Passage, a sophomore at Louisiana State University, laughs.

"No. I don't think they would do that," he says. "I think [students] would just have the party and then face the repercussions."

That's exactly what Apramay Mishra, student body president at the University of Kansas, is worried about when it comes to reopening campus amid the pandemic. "Right now it's kind of slipped from most people's minds," he says. Students "don't really think it's a big deal."

Peaceful, student-led protests have been a powerful force for change throughout American history.

In 1925, for example, students at Fisk University staged a 10-week protest to speak out against the school's president, who didn't want students starting a chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. In 1940, almost 2,000 students protested after New York University decided to pull a black player from its football roster to accommodate the University of Missouri's segregationists.

And campus-based protests, including against racism, were a major lever of social change in the 1960s.

The U.S. Department of Education is making it harder for colleges to reconsider — and potentially increase — financial aid for students who have lost jobs or family income in the current economic crisis.

Like many high school counselors, Crys Latham has been paying close attention to the colleges that are announcing that they'll no longer require admissions exams for applicants. She's a big fan of giving students the opportunity not to submit their test scores.

Emma Cockrum was in her second week of quarantine when her father discovered an old bike behind their house.

And that bicycle turned out to be a gift: With school closed at East Ascension High School in Gonzales, La., bike riding for Emma became a way of coping with the loss of the rest of her senior year.

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The coronavirus test wasn't as bad as Celeste Torres imagined. Standing outside a dorm at the University of California, San Diego, Torres stuck a swab up a nostril, scanned a QR code, and went on with the day.

"The process itself was about five minutes," Torres says, "I did cry a little bit just because it's, I guess, a natural reaction."

College dorms are closed. Athletic events are canceled. Classes have moved online. Like so many sectors of the U.S. economy, higher education is taking a hit from the coronavirus pandemic. In March, Congress set aside more than $14 billion to help colleges and universities weather the outbreak.

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Starting Monday, Advanced Placement exams, which test high schoolers' knowledge of college material, will take an unusual form. The high-anxiety, college credit tests normally last three hours and are taken in person. But this year, in response to disruptions from the coronavirus outbreak, the College Board, which administers AP exams, shortened the tests to 45 minutes and moved them online.

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When Congress allocated money for higher education in the coronavirus rescue package, it set aside nearly $350 million for colleges that had "significant unmet needs."

Most of that money has now been allotted by the U.S. Department of Education to small, private colleges that serve just a fraction of U.S. college students. Meanwhile, public colleges — which serve more than 70% of all college students — are facing a steep drop in state funding.

What will happen on college campuses in the fall? It's a big question for families, students and the schools themselves.

A lot of what happens depends on factors outside the control of individual schools: Will there be more testing? Contact tracing? Enough physical space for distancing? Will the coronavirus have a second wave? Will any given state allow campuses to reopen?

For all of these questions, it's really too early to know the answers. But one thing is clear: Life, and learning for the nation's 20 million students in higher education, will be different.

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