Oregon public universities hope for in-person fall terms

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
Jan. 31, 2021 2:30 p.m.

Deadlines are approaching for next academic year’s freshman class

While 2021 has just begun, Oregon’s public universities already have their sights set on the upcoming fall, and the possibility of increasing what occurs on campus and in person. High school seniors are facing college application deadlines, with some looming this coming week and some that have officially passed.

Currently, the majority of Oregon’s seven public universities are planning to increase or restore in-person learning, including the state’s three largest — Oregon State University, University of Oregon and Portland State University — as well as Eastern Oregon University.


Southern Oregon University said it hopes to be primarily in-person in the fall, while Western Oregon University and Oregon Institute of Technology both said it’s too early to make that call. The details of each school’s plans vary based on local circumstances.

PSU commits to in-person for fall 2021

Portland State University last week officially announced Open For Fall‚ Open For All, an initiative aimed at making processes easier for new students looking to attend the state’s largest urban university.

Oregon’s universities largely lost enrollment in the 2020-21 school year, and are hoping students will return in greater numbers in the fall. Some universities, such as PSU, are taking specific steps to recruit and retain students.

PSU has seen a continuing fall in enrollment over the past decade, and the institution said in a Board of Trustees meeting on Jan. 21 that it expects that decrease to continue even after the immediate effects of the pandemic have passed.

As part of its Open For Fall, Open For All plan, the university said it will be temporarily eliminating the application fee for new undergraduate students starting Tuesday. PSU also said it will be reducing the minimum grade point average required for admission for the next three years.

Currently, the grade point average requirement at PSU is a 3.0, though students with lower GPAs can apply and undergo a review of their academic background. It’s unclear what the GPA minimum requirement will be lowered to, the university said, as it still must be voted on by PSU’s Faculty Senate. University officials say the new requirement will be announced when the plan launches Feb. 2.

The South Park Blocks on Portland State University's downtown campus sit mostly empty on a normally busy morning on Friday, April 17, 2020. Oregon college campuses have been unusually quiet amid the coronavirus pandemic as schools have shifted to remote learning.

The South Park Blocks on Portland State University's downtown campus sit mostly empty on a normally busy morning on Friday, April 17, 2020. PSU is among the Oregon universities intending to increase in-person instruction and bring students back to campuses.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

Those initiatives will only be available to new undergraduate students at Portland State. The university said it’s working on a separate program for transfer students.

“We know that high school students have enough to worry about right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted their studies and their lives in countless ways,” PSU Provost Susan Jeffords said in a statement. “Our commitment to Portland and to Oregon is that we’re here to be a part of the recovery. This is our COVID relief package.”

As a part of the Open For Fall, Open For All program, PSU will also offer a summer bridge offering for selected new students to prepare for college courses. The university also said it will expand eligibility, by removing the minimum GPA requirement, for its Four Years Free program — a free tuition program available for Pell Grant-eligible Oregon high school graduates who enroll full-time. The university will also offer discounted on-campus housing for Pell-eligible students, though it said the details are not yet finalized so there are no specifics available on how much those discounts will be.

PSU’s very public announcement of fall term planning and initiatives is particularly interesting due to it having one of the latest fall term freshman application deadlines out of all public universities — on Aug. 1.

With fall applications arriving, UO, OSU anticipating more in-person learning

While PSU has made a firm commitment to in-person learning this fall, the state’s other large public universities are hedging a bit more, even as official application windows are closing.

The University of Oregon and Oregon State University — which have freshman application deadlines in January and February, respectively — earlier this month shared that they are planning for more in-person fall terms.

“We do anticipate a more traditional campus experience in the fall and will provide you updates as we continue through the spring and summer,” OSU President F. King Alexander wrote in a message to the university’s faculty and staff on Jan. 15, just a few weeks before the Feb. 1 due date for freshman fall term applications. Like many other of the universities, OSU says it will accept late applications on a “space-available basis.”

“The details and certainty of fall term are still to come and will rely on many health related and vaccine-related matters,” the university said in an email to OPB.


OSU said it understands that there will be sufficient distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of this summer to enable planning for more in-person instruction and on-campus activities for the next academic year, but the university said it “will need to remain flexible and adjust our plans, if the situation changes.”

The University of Oregon said that, based on information about the “extremely low” risk of transmission in classroom settings and the more widespread availability of vaccines expected for the late spring or summer, it is confident in moving back toward a predominantly in-person fall term.

“At first, we gradually plan to increase in-person instruction and activities over the summer, and then return to predominantly in-person instruction and activities in the fall,” UO President Michael Schill wrote in a message to the campus community on Jan. 19. “Of course, this will all be dependent on public health conditions and under the guidance of our state and local health authorities.”

Students at Oregon State University line up for coronavirus testing before traveling for Thanksgiving, in Nov. 2020.

Students at Oregon State University line up for coronavirus testing before traveling for Thanksgiving, in Nov. 2020.

Sean Nealon

UO has seen the most coronavirus cases out of all seven public universities. According to its most recently published data, there are more than 1,170 reported positive cases with a connection to the university — including both off- and on-campus students and employees — since last June.

That’s compared to the second-most cases, about 500 connected to the OSU Corvallis campus community since July, as reported by the Benton County Health Department. Since late August, OSU also has 28 positive COVID-19 cases associated with its Cascades campus in Bend, according to data from the university.

UO President Schill noted that even as people get vaccinated, public health strategies like face coverings, physical distancing and limited gatherings will still be important components of the university’s plans for fall.

UO has the earliest freshman application deadline out of all of Oregon’s public universities — which passed on Jan. 15, though like OSU, UO said on its website that it will accept late applications on a “space-available basis.”

Smaller universities hoping to eventually increase in-person instruction

Eastern Oregon University, in La Grande, has been offering some in-person instruction since this past fall term.

“EOU plans to continue offering in-person instruction throughout this year, and we anticipate being primarily in-person for the fall,” EOU Vice President for University Advancement Tim Seydel told OPB in a statement.

EOU has the latest freshman application deadline of all Oregon public universities. Applications are due Sept. 10, just a few weeks before the start of its fall term.

Some public universities are waiting a little longer before making similar decisions and announcements about in-person fall term activities.

Southern Oregon University in Ashland said it hopes to be primarily in-person by fall term, but for now the university is focusing on gradually shifting to more hybrid classes over the spring and summer terms. Like PSU, Southern sliding enrollment figures to worry about, having lost more students over the last year than any public university in the state.

Western Oregon University said it’s too early to finalize its plans for fall term.

A sign reads "Western Oregon University, Founded 1856."

Western Oregon University

Rob Manning / OPB

“Like the other Oregon public universities, we’re actively working to maximize the number and breadth of face-to-face options in all aspects of campus life conditioned by guidance from public health officials,” Lisa Catto, WOU’s assistant director of marketing and communications, said. “Our focus is on having multiple learning options to meet the needs of our faculty and students.”

Western has had to make significant budget cuts recently, including proposed program reductions under a plan developed by a university task force led by President Rex Fuller.

Both SOU and WOU have rolling admissions, which means they review applications throughout the year, but their priority freshman fall term application deadlines are coming up this Tuesday.

The Oregon Institute of Technology said it is currently focused on communicating and facilitating its plan for the upcoming spring term. OIT plans to use the same approach to classes it’s using this winter — mostly remote learning, with select in-person courses.

OIT does not have a final plan for the fall, though it also has a late freshman application deadline of Sept. 8.