Kelsey Hennegen spent the last two years at St. John's College completing her graduate degree in liberal arts. When COVID-19 forced shutdowns across New Mexico in March, she held onto hope that the pandemic would subside in time for graduation and oral exams.
So Hennegen, along with the rest of her cohort, sat in front of their computer screens for a Zoom graduation that was part livestream, part pre-recorded program. She popped a bottle of sparkling wine by herself and tried to let go of the parts of graduation that students look forward to: parties with friends, dinner with family and proud photos in a cap and gown. She didn't even receive her cap, gown and diploma until after the online ceremony. She says it was "anticlimactic."
Thousands of other students, faculty and administrators across Santa Fe faced similar letdowns amid campus shutdowns, online classroom difficulties, declining enrollment and reduced income as ripple effects from COVID-19 hit the city's three undergraduate colleges.
Students and parents nationwide wonder whether a fully or mostly online education is worth as much as an in-person one. And as the US economy has taken a massive hit, leaving colleges and their students in varying degrees of financial crises, some institutions in Santa Fe have decided to raise tuition or keep it the same to stay afloat, while others went the opposite way.
"I'm able to see the restrictions and limitations that the administration is dealing with, and so while I wish I could have had spring on campus, I also see that they made the right decisions," Hennegen tells SFR.
She missed talking and working with her peers and professors face to face, considering them "the hardest thing to replace" after moving completely online for the last half of the spring semester.
The Institute of American Indian Arts decreased tuition, while Santa Fe Community College increased it. St. John's College's tuition won't change at all. All three are helping students with internet connectivity and have contingency plans in place if there is another major outbreak.
IAIA decided to lower tuition significantly for the 2020-2021 academic year to help its financially-strapped students finish their degrees and cope with mostly online classes. President Robert Martin tells SFR 68% of the school's courses will be exclusively online in the upcoming semester.
"Not only are we offering a 10% reduction for tuition, and that's primarily for students while they're taking classes on campus," he says, "but if they're exclusively online students, then it's a 25% reduction."
In contrast, SFCC raised its tuition in order to offset declines in enrollment, despite plans to be almost completely online in the fall—from classes to financial aid help. Only the trade courses, such as welding and nursing, will have some in-person instruction.
"We've basically converted all of our student service systems and all of our student support systems to really effective online platforms. When we first closed down in March, it was a huge scramble," says SFCC President Becky Rowley. "We were not prepared. We did not have online advising. We didn't have very much online tutoring."
Now, almost all students are enrolling online at SFCC. The bookstore has also gone completely virtual. Rowley tells SFR the college is now much better prepared for a spike in coronavirus cases and a possible campus shutdown in the fall.
But schools that are better prepared digitally for a shutdown still can't change the lack of face-to-face instruction and a weakened economy. IAIA saw a decline in enrollment from 245 last fall to 219 this fall, though the number of graduate students increased slightly.
At SFCC during the fall semester of 2019, student credit hours totaled 32,628. A budget projection for fall 2020 predicts 22,835 credit hours. While student credit hours are in decline, SFCC saw an uptick in credit hours per individual, meaning credit students were taking more classes.
St. John's College is the only institution claiming that admissions are up "year over year." Last year 89 freshmen started at the Santa Fe campus in the fall. This year, over 100 freshmen will start in just a few months, the highest number of students planning to enroll at this stage in the year since 2010, according to Caroline Randall, director of admissions.
"Whether that will hold because of [COVID-19], that's the question," says Ned Walpin, associate dean for graduate programs. "Our fall admissions for our freshman class here in Santa Fe is actually up."
Contingency plans are another aspect of preparing for a partial in-person fall semester. Because of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's public health orders, St. John's and IAIA had to decrease the number of people who could live on campus, meaning lots of students around Santa Fe will either need housing or will have to study online from home.
The schools' plans include requiring masks, smaller class sizes, reducing occupancy in residence halls on campus and social distancing in common areas. SFCC and IAIA have helped students pay for internet plans and loaned out laptops—necessities in a state like New Mexico with such large gaps in internet connectivity.
The schools will rely on public health orders to decide whether to keep campuses open.
"We definitely have to have contingency plans and of course, we're working on those," Martin says. "Because we realize that with COVID-19 there's a lot of uncertainty at this point, but things could change."
Editor's note: A previous version of this article misspelled Kelsey Hennegen's name.