WICHITA — Universities don’t just sell the chance at an education. The whole college experience has been a key tool for keeping students around.
Wichita State University budgeted more than $1 million dollars on ways for students to have fun on campus last year.
But face masks and social distancing make it harder to pull off those in-person events built on the idea of bringing lots of students together. Even with those precautions, any gathering risks spreading the coronavirus. That’s caused universities in Kansas to cut back on their computer-free, real-life physical activities.
Yet colleges haven’t canceled all of campus life. Kansas State University has film screenings. Wichita State’s held relay races.
Here are four reasons why universities still plan on holding in-person events.
Keep students enrolled
Across the country, fewer kids are going to college. Schools in Kansas have tried different tricks to get more students to enroll, such as offering in-state tuition to out-of-state recruits.
But there’s another way to get more students to graduate — stop the ones already on campus from leaving.
"To be able to keep a student is far less expensive than being able to recruit a new student," said Thomas Lane, K-State’s dean of students.
For years, universities have banked on in-person events to get students to stick around. The theory goes that silly games and food festivals make students feel connected to their school and less likely to leave.
Universities argue that if an in-person event keeps students from dropping out and wasting a semester of tuition dollars, then those events should keep happening — even in a pandemic.
"I don’t think any student starts off their higher education journey thinking that they don’t want to be on that journey at some time next year," Lane said.
Virtual events don’t cut it
Universities have shifted many of their events online. But a videoconference session isn’t much of a party. It can’t replicate meeting face-to-face.
"Zoom is not a replacement for those social events," said Rob Danzman, a mental health counselor in Indiana. "We miss a lot when we’re not in person."
There’s also the "Zoom fatigue." With students taking a large portion of their classes online, getting them to hop onto yet another video event is a tough sell.
Kansas schools have been trying to offer a mix of both, to satisfy the students itching for that in-person interaction and those uncomfortable with gathering in the flesh. Wichita State let students watch the Clash of the Colleges — a collection of absurd competitions — at home or join in with virtual games.
Colleges have been dealing with mental health issues on campus for more than a decade. Stress. Anxiety. Loneliness. Last year, one doctor called it an epidemic.
Health experts worry those problems will worsen this fall.
"Social isolation kills people very easily," Danzman said.
Some students were already feeling socially isolated before the pandemic. Now they say making new friends is a lot more difficult when you only see your classmates on a screen.
"I definitely am missing out on actually sitting next to people in my classes and making small talk," said Ashley Thompson, a freshman at Wichita State. "It’s hard to make those connections."
Students also said it’s difficult making friends even on campus with desks kept 6 feet apart.
Universities worry that removing all in-person events will further cut off students from each other and only deepen the mental health crisis.
Safer than a kegger
Since opening up, universities have seen a rapid increase in coronavirus cases. Universities have been pointing at fraternities and sororities for holding big parties that spread the coronavirus. As of Friday, colleges and universities had 27 outbreaks, many linked to Greek organizations.
Most students plan on skipping the parties this year, according to a national survey conducted before school began. But a viral video showed a large, mask-free gathering at one KU fraternity.
Schools say if they don’t offer students a safe alternative, they’ll continue to find riskier ways to meet up.
Universities are taking precautions with their events — limiting sizes, requiring face masks and keeping most events outside. Still, even with these steps, schools can’t guarantee these events won’t further spread the virus.
"Anytime you get anybody together right now that is a wildcard," said Rachel Kohman, the senior director of Emporia State’s Center for Student Involvement. "But if we aren’t offering some safe, in-person opportunities for our students, then the likelihood that things we have zero control over … are going to inherently increase."
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service.