Virtual or Hybrid Graduation: Which One Will be the Trend in 2021?

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on every aspect of our lives. Whether it is classes, business meetings or congregations, gathering of any kind is risky if not fatal.

Thus, graduation ceremonies are not taking place either.

As a result, many institutions including Johns Hopkins University, Virginia Tech, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Texas Austin have held their commencement ceremonies online in 2020.

Some high schools in California and private schools arranged drive-through graduation ceremonies as COVID-19 infection rate was relatively low at that time.

However, due to the evolving nature of the pandemic, institutions are forced to look for alternate ways of hosting their graduation ceremonies foregoing any hope of in-person commencement.

At GradPak, we are anticipating two types of commencement ceremonies institutions in the USA are likely to adopt.

They will either host virtual graduation ceremonies with more attraction points than 2020.

Or they will host a hybrid one.

What is virtual graduation?

A virtual graduation ceremony is one that is hosted online.

Virtual graduation ceremony is an online ceremony which prospective graduates and faculty members attend to celebrate the commencement. Some institutions allow families of the graduates to watch the online ceremony through a web link. The diploma is mailed to the students who can choose to have the regalia included with the diploma as well. When the student’s name is announced, a personalized slide may be shown.

Here is how Harvard University has done it in 2020.

What is hybrid graduation?

This is a new term coined due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A hybrid graduation ceremony is the type of commencement ceremony which is held in-person while following all health guidelines prescribed by CDC and the state health officials.

The graduating students sit on the front seat of their cars and drive to a spot on-campus where they get down and receive a diploma while maintaining social distance. Then they are greeted by the head of the institution. After that, they go to a photo booth and get their photo taken. Some institutions allow a group photo maintaining social distance. After that, they get into their vehicle where their family is waiting and exit the venue.

At this point, mostly high schools have held hybrid graduation ceremonies.

Some of the mention worthy ones that held hybrid commencement ceremonies are: Payson High School of Utah, Miamisburg High School of Ohio, Lufkin ISD of Texas and East Central High School of California.

Institutions are instructed to strictly follow the guidelines during their hybrid graduation. Some of those as as follows – 

  • Every social distancing rule should be followed
  • Up to six family members can accompany the graduating student
  • Restrooms will stay closed during the commencement
  • Groups are strongly advised not to congregate after exiting the school property

Let us now have a look at some of the incidents from 2020 that we took into account while trying to  forecast the preferred commencement format in 2021.

A looming lockdown

Since COVID-19 is spreading at a faster rate, the new administration may impose nationwide lockdown.

Even though the official website of president-elect Joe Biden doesn’t mention it explicitly, it does so in one way or another.

He has been advocating a central and strong leadership to guide America through this pandemic that is founded in science. In other words, he is most likely going to put the lockdown back in place along with other safety measures. Especially since the infection rate is rising.

If (or should we say when) that happens, institutions would either have to postpone graduation ceremony indefinitely. Alternatively, they have to adopt the virtual graduation. Now, students are unlikely to go for the indefinite postponement of commencement as many other universities and colleges have held the 2020 graduation virtually and are going to hold the next one in the same manner.

Name pronunciation 

If an institution has too many students, pronouncing each of their names on the virtual commencement ceremony may take the whole day.

This is what happened with Ohio State University. Because of the significantly high number of graduating students, they were unable to pronounce their names during degree conferral.

While it is an extremely unfortunate incident, it points out the limitations of institutions during a virtual or hybrid commencement ceremony.

Students from many other institutions have reported similar disappointing incidents.

Thus, universities will be on the lookout for graduation service providers capable of hosting virtual or hybrid commencement ceremonies in a satisfactory manner.

Drive-through commencement 

A number of institutions are in areas with relatively lower infection rates and a smaller number of graduating students held drive-through graduation ceremonies.

University of South Carolina Beaufort is a mention-worthy example when it comes to drive-through graduation ceremonies.

In this type of commencement, graduating students and their families sit in their cars and drive along a pathway that runs through the campus or a pre-selected venue. The faculty members stand on either side of the drive-way and cheer them on. A restricted number of students stand in maintaining six feet distance. Slowly they walk up to the stage and receive their diploma.

Here’s a video of drive-through commence experience captured by one of the graduates of Coachella Valley High School –

Many high schools in California and public schools in New Haven have hosted such commencement ceremonies as well.

According to the students and their families, it’s as close to an in-person commencement as possible during such a critical time.

Another drive-through graduation video from The University of Texas Permian Basin –

Minecraft Virtual Campus

Students at some universities created their campus on Minecraft to celebrate their virtual graduation

Yes, you heard that right!

Students in universities like UCB, MIT and Brown have created their virtual campus on the popular game Minecraft. Since these universities have gone for virtual graduation, the students have created such campuses to enliven the most important event in their lives. Even though it is nowhere near the in-person event, it’s better than a plain virtual event which they will most likely attend in their pajamas.

Check out this cool video on UC Berkeley Minecraft graduation

This endeavor is getting pretty good traction. Universities like UCLA, Northwestern University and Boston University have undertaken this initiative. Many community colleges and high schools are following suit. It is safe to assume it will act as a mild anesthetic to their pain of not being able to attend graduation ceremonies in person this year.

The last graduation ceremony  

For many high school graduates, there will not be another commencement 

According to a report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 4 out of every 10 high school students do not go to college.

Which means they and their families are highly unlikely to attend any other graduation ceremonies in their lifetime. As a result, many high schools will have second thoughts about taking the highly anticipated ceremony online. Keeping this in mind, many high schools have decided to postpone commencement to a later date when the pandemic will have died down.

Server crash

The link for live-streaming the online ceremony may crash due to heavy traffic

Because of the pandemic, many states are under official or unofficial lockdown.

As a result, universities, colleges, and high schools are compelled to hold their graduation ceremonies partially or fully online.

When it’s the latter, live streaming is a common element. That is because families of students won’t be able to attend the ceremony because of health risk due to COVID-19.

A common yet significant issue with live streaming was, it couldn’t deliver the video feed to a massive number of people. When too many people try to enter the institution website to watch the ceremony, the site often crashes.

For this reason, institutions will either need to arrange additional internet bandwidth. Or they will need to restrict the number of people who can watch the ceremony live.

Hijacked ceremonies 

Virtual commencement ceremony of some institutions have been hacked

Oklahoma City University experienced such an incident firsthand. They held their commencement ceremony online over Zoom. During the ceremony, the screen went dark and obscene materials appeared.

And they will not be the last to experience such cyber-harassment. To prevent such occurrences from happening at their graduation ceremony, institutions are looking for reliable virtual graduation management solutions.

Because of the health risk, academic institutions may not be able to hold a fully in-person ceremony. And a hybrid one may end up costing more. So institutions with smaller student populations may go for virtual ceremonies with stronger cybersecurity measures in place.

Celebrity guests

Tech giants are lining up to sponsor celebrity guests to address graduating students who are going to attend virtual graduation

YouTube aired its own live stream event with President Barack Obama to address the class of 2020. Similarly, many universities have collaborated with high-profile people. A prime example of one such incident is Apple CEO Tim Cook’s commencement address in Ohio Statue University’s virtual ceremony.

Here’s the full speech if you’re interested –

Many are citing this as an attempt to soothe the students who are upset with the cancellation of their graduation ceremony. Students of UCLA have shown the strongest resistance against virtual graduation by far. They started a petition against it and gathered over 10K signatures.

By having celebrity speakers at online commencement, universities are trying to add color to their virtual ceremonies. However, most students are asking for a postponement to a later date. However, with the ongoing waves of COVID-19, it doesn’t strike as a good idea to the graduation management body. Thus, an increasing number of academic institutions are strongly considering virtual commencement.

High schools and community colleges are finding it difficult to make their virtual graduation engaging as their budget isn’t as significant as those of colleges. That is a challenge they will need to solve if they want to deliver a memorable experience to their students.

GradPak’s analysis for 2021

When attempting to predict the graduation ceremony hosting plans of institutions in 2021, we relied on the following data: 

  • COVID-19 infection rate
  • Student enrollment rate in Fall 2020

The image below shows the rate of change in reported COVID-19 cases in the USA.

COVID-19 cases in the USA 2020
Source: Google

As you can see, it’s rising quite rapidly after a brief slow down. With about 250,000 new cases being reported every day coupled with the holiday season, a sharper infection rate is anticipated.

COVID-19 hospitalization rate in the USA 2020

The hospitalization rate data from the CDC shows a similar trend. A record number of people have been hospitalized due to COVID related symptoms. Because of the upcoming holidays, this number is projected to rise as well. 

Impact of COVID-19 on student enrollment USA 2020

The raging pandemic has affected student enrollment as well. As per the data above, all types of public and private schools and community colleges have seen dips of varying degrees in their incoming student body in Fall of 2020.

According to a report from McKinsey, about 15% of students are very likely to defer to the next semester. It has also found that about 45% of students are likely to look for a different school with in-state tuition closer to home.

In the case of remote learning, students expect a discounted tuition. That, combined with lower enrollment, means a sizable drop in university revenue. As a result, institutions will have a diminished fund for hosting graduation ceremonies. 

With the vaccination estimated to be available for the mass people by mid-2021, there is little chance of the pandemic dying out enough for the institutions to even think about in-person commencement ceremony. 

Considering all the facts stated above, one would say that most graduation ceremonies will be virtual in 2021. Many analysts, on the contrary, are leaning towards hybrid. According to them, many states where the pandemic situation is relatively better may allow restricted public gathering. Institutions in those states, keeping the emotions of students in mind, may opt for hybrid graduations.  

Since they are aware of the disappointing incidents and drawbacks that they had to endure this year, they will be on the lookout for robust, scalable, secure and easy-to-use virtual graduation software.

GradPak is definitely one that meets these criteria. Used by over twenty American and Australian institutions to host successful graduation ceremonies, it is a trustworthy platform to make graduation memorable for the students.

Wrapping up

With the gradually worsening condition of the pandemic and the drastic shift in the political leadership, a stricter lockdown is expected that will stay for another couple of months. In that case, virtual graduation may take precedence. On the other hand, some states may allow restricted public gathering which leaves room for hybrid commencement.

What is the situation in your institution and state? Do let us know in the comments.

GradPak might be able to offer the best virtual commencement solution within a short period of time, including customized registration module and personalized graduation slide. All within an affordable price range. Click on the link to request for a free demo.

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