Oregon’s rural colleges could hold an advantage as future students consider the threat of coronavirus in their selection criteria for higher education.

The thinking goes like this, said Tim Seydel, vice president of university advancement at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande: “Maybe I’ll go to a smaller rural school where there’s a little more room and I’m not in an urban environment, and I can go outside and easily be six feet — heck, I can be six miles — from people.”

Rural institutions, with their can-do character, are every bit as critical to the pandemic response as urban institutions.

“We’re doers. We don’t cogitate on problems. We want to get our hands dirty and fix things,” said Brian Fox, vice president for finance and administration at Oregon Institute of Technology.

“Oregon Tech is the response,” he said. “We are the economic response. We do engineering, which will help the American economy rebuild as we shorten our supply chains. We do business and IT, which we’re seeing across the country as folks respond to change the way we do business and to leverage IT tools. And we do health care. So we are the response.”

This spring, Gov. Kate Brown ordered colleges to temporarily end in-person classes so as to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmissions. EOU had an easier transition than some.

Remote learning is part of the EOU ethos. The college was doing distance education before the internet. Students and professors mailed assignments back and forth. Proctors administered exams at remote sites.

With the evolution of distance learning, many professors now teach both on-campus and online, and a majority of EOU students have experience in both settings. The university offers more than 20 online degree programs, plus other online courses. That institutional expertise proved invaluable as faculty converted traditionally hands-on classes, such as pottery or theater set production, to online-only.

EOU is working toward resuming in-person classes in the fall term, with physical distancing and other COVID-19 protocols in place.

Seydel said students desire the whole college experience: “They want to be in the classroom with their faculty. They want to either live on campus or live in town. They want to go to the football games and go to the theater productions and go to the student activities on campus. They want to be part of that campus community.”

The sentiment is similar at Oregon Tech, whose main, residential campus is in Klamath Falls. “They want to be here, and they want to learn, which is cool. We have many students in the health care fields. They want to be in hospitals, and they want to be helping people,” Fox said.

That help included deploying the university’s 20 or so ventilators, used for training respiratory therapists, to area hospitals and sending personal protective equipment.

Oregon Tech now is figuring out how to resume in-person classes for the fall term, expecting they will look different — possibly a hybrid that includes online teaching and in-person labs.

Like other areas of society, colleges have lost significant revenue during the pandemic. Administrative and classified employees at Oregon Tech are being furloughed one day a week, and major cuts may be coming in state support. Fox noted that public colleges serving low-income and rural Oregonians are the ones most dependent on that state funding. Meanwhile, Oregon Tech may have to operate in ways that are more difficult and expensive.

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