2021 Predictions from Professors

by Evan Thompson

Updated August 24, 2022


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The year 2020 will go down in infamy. A once-in-a-lifetime pandemic with a staggering death toll and recession have wreaked havoc on the U.S. and higher education. But what does 2021 have in store for colleges and universities?

Outbreaks on campuses may continue to pop up until the COVID-19 pandemic can be brought under control, but there's reason to be optimistic: A COVID-19 vaccine is on the way. The college experience could look more normal sometime in 2021. (It may come too late for the Class of 2021, though.)

We asked four professors to make predictions about higher education in 2021. Their perspectives give us an idea about how public and private colleges and universities around the country are preparing for the year ahead.

Here is how they think 2021 will play out.

  • Lora Sabin
    Lora Sabin is an associate professor of global health at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts.
  • Rob Elliott
    Rob Elliott is a senior lecturer in computer information technology at Indiana University in Indianapolis, Indiana.
  • Sean O'Brien
    Sean O'Brien is a clinical associate professor of writing and literature at Arrupe College, a two-year degree program at Loyola University Chicago, in Chicago, Illinois.
  • Julia Bradshaw
    Julia Bradshaw is an associate professor of art and art history at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.

The following interviews have been edited for clarity.

Campus Life

Many colleges and universities have returned to campus, trying to make in-person instruction work. Even more schools plan to bring students back in the spring, using a combined strategy of increased testing and strict social distancing rules.

But campus life with COVID-19 restrictions hardly resembles a traditional college experience. To avoid outbreaks, socializing in groups is forbidden at most institutions, taking away one of the most cherished parts of college.

Will the full in-person campus experience return in 2021?

"I think it won't return in this academic year, but we may well be able to be in person again in fall 2021, depending on how quickly approved vaccines can be delivered (and accepted)."

--Lora Sabin, Boston University

"We have been notified by our campus to plan for a 'normal' fall semester -- full-term, in-person classes with no social distancing. This is contingent, of course, on what the situation is in April/May, but planning for the fall is happening now. We will likely maintain our mask requirements for some time. Frankly, I was surprised at the note possibly discontinuing social distancing. Although nothing has been stated, I suspect that we will have a vaccination mandate."

--Rob Elliott, Indiana University

"I have my hopes pinned for fall, though I think we could make meaningful strides toward it in the summer term, depending on how things go with the vaccine. We may all still be wearing masks to protect those who can't take a vaccine and/or to protect each other from those who don't take one for one reason or another.

"There may be lingering restrictions on particularly crowded types of events. More schools may offer ongoing online education options to those students who find online works well for them. And I anticipate those ongoing online courses will be a more uniformly positive experience when populated with professors and students who have chosen to do education that way -- as opposed to all of us being in it whether we like it or not during the pandemic."

--Sean O'Brien, Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago


The U.S. has approved a coronavirus vaccine made by pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. The U.K. has already begun administering the vaccine, and Canada is preparing to follow suit.

But, it's unclear when doses will be widely available for U.S. colleges and universities. Healthcare workers will be eligible for shots first, followed by residents of nursing homes. It could be a while before students and professors are vaccinated. Even then, medical experts have cautioned that "normal" is still a long way off.

Will a vaccine make a difference on college campuses in 2021?

"Assuming vaccination is required, the fall semester could be as normal as possible. Masks will likely still be required on campus. There is a possibility that we might return to exclusive virtual learning between Thanksgiving and February (just to ensure safety during peak travel times), but courses should be full-term."

--Rob Elliott, Indiana University

"It all depends on how many are vaccinated. If 70-80% of students, faculty, and staff are vaccinated, it will really change things."

--Lora Sabin, Boston University

"At my school, I don't think a vaccine will meaningfully impact spring 2021. The majority of college students and many relatively young professors like me won't get a vaccine until the semester is over (or almost over). But I think a vaccine is likely to make an in-person 2021-22 school year possible if people choose to take it or if schools require it for a student or professor to engage in in-person classes and activities -- which I would support."

--Sean O'Brien, Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago


Colleges and universities will operate under the gloom of financial peril in 2021. Declining enrollment — including a sharp drop in international students — state budget shortfalls, and an economic crisis have strained schools both big and small.

While tuition has historically risen by about 3% each year, many public and private schools committed to freezing tuition during the pandemic in an effort to entice students back to college.

But if the recession leads to further cuts in higher education funding, college costs could go up. Such cuts happened during the 2008 recession, and tuition at public four-year colleges and universities rose by 19% between 2009 and 2012.

Will the average college sticker price rise in 2021?

"Hard to know, but my guess is no. Colleges and universities need every student they can get -- why scare any off just as there is a good chance of recruiting a high number of students (who will be in school for several years)?

"Financial and income losses will make it hard for many people to pay for college, so the calculation may be that it's better to keep tuition steady in 2021 to encourage and enable people to start or continue in college, and then to raise tuition the following year. This is playing the long game, which I think will appeal to higher education institutions. They want to survive for longer than just one more year."

--Lora Sabin, Boston University

"If I had to guess, I'd bet colleges will not raise prices more than usual for 2021-22, to offset pandemic-related financial crunches. I would expect prices to stay flat or to be raised only by whatever that college's 'standard' incremental annual increase is.

"The thing that is hurting colleges the most during this pandemic is losing students, so it would seem to me like a risky move to give students one more reason to go elsewhere, put college off, or simply not be able to make it work in their own cash-strapped, post-pandemic situations. Colleges want their students back in strong numbers, so I think that's priority No. 1 coming out of this."

--Sean O'Brien, Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago

"Right now I do not think any increases will be made due to direct costs of the pandemic. However, I do think that state-sponsored schools are going to find reduced governmental support in the very near future which will directly affect the bottom lines. My sense right now is that schools are in more of a cost-cutting mode. Some might take this opportunity to realign programs and administrative components before choosing to make significant increases."

--Rob Elliott, Indiana University

Biden Administration

President-elect Joe Biden will face some challenges in higher education when he takes office in 2021. One of his administration's top priorities will be reducing student loan debt, which has ballooned to $1.5 trillion over the past couple of decades.

Biden has committed to broad student loan forgiveness, though that may be easier said than done. He has also signaled his support for other issues that affect higher education, like reversing draconian immigration policies, delivering meaningful legislation for LGBTQ+ rights, and installing protections against predatory for-profit schools.

How will Biden's presidency impact higher education?

"I think the most exciting potential for higher education would be meaningful action to help make college affordable for all. Making the first two years significantly less costly -- as Biden says he'd like to do across the board -- would be a big step.

"More immediately, I look forward to renewed guidance to protect marginalized students in K-12 and higher education along lines of LGBTQ+ identity, race, and gender. Betsy DeVos, President Trump's Secretary of Education, undid a lot of this protective guidance. DeVos also made it harder for students to contest their debt loads from predatory for-profit schools, so hopefully that debt issue will get better again."

--Sean O'Brien, Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago

"I sincerely hope that he solves the student loan crisis and solves the problem of ever-escalating federal student loan debt. I am cautiously optimistic in that he has initial plans to cancel $10,000 of individual student debt. Solving the funding crisis for higher education will enable more people with limited means to have access to education and greater freedom to follow their interests."

--Julia Bradshaw, Oregon State University.

Academic Challenges

Pandemic fatigue is setting in. Months of COVID-19 safety protocols, online courses, and social distancing have had a devastating effect on mental health. With the effort it takes to learn or teach in this environment, it's more challenging than ever to be a student or professor. Although a vaccine means the end is in sight, the going will still be tough in the near future.

What worries you as a professor coming into 2021?

"Maintaining high morale and a sense of camaraderie will be hard. Morale feels low in our department, likely due to the high stress and exhaustion so many of us are feeling right now. There are no chats by the coffee machine, drop-ins to colleagues' offices to ask questions or compare notes on something. We can still call each other, but getting on yet another Zoom call to catch up tends to feel forced. We're all very tired of Zoom."

--Lora Sabin, Boston University

"Zoom fatigue is real. It's very hard to keep up the energy and enthusiasm when faced with rows of black Zoom boxes as opposed to being able to see most of your students, but it's part of the job. The bigger challenge, though, is trying to help students not fall through the cracks, which is [harder] to do when you can't check in with them for a minute before and after class very easily. So, doing more outreach to keep engaged with all students is another added task that's really crucial these days."

--Sean O'Brien, Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago

"As a professor in the studio arts, my biggest challenge with online instruction is generating a secure and safe environment for students to experiment and take risks with their creative work. Another big challenge is trying to generate momentum when some students are facing burnout from the distance learning platform or dealing with struggles in their home life. For this reason, I think that I, like many other professors, have become a more compassionate teacher."

--Julia Bradshaw, Oregon State University

Portrait of

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

Header Image Credit: valentinrussanov, Natalia Klenova / EyeEm | Getty Images

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