Just imagine the experiences the current generation of college students will one day reminisce about.
Hey, do you still remember the first nasal swab you ever had on campus? How about the seminar on the American novel that got Zoom-bombed? And who can forget all those evenings spent alone in our dorm rooms, eating the brownbag dinners we picked up each night in the otherwise closed dining halls?
Yes, it’s going to be a different world for students on college campuses across the country this fall. Provided, of course, they come to campus at all.
At Harvard University, all classes will be held online. The school will permit only 40% — almost exclusively freshmen — of its undergraduates to live on campus this fall.
Cornell University still plans to bring all students back to campus. However, the experience for students will be a bit like an airline flight: They’ll be limited to bringing two large suitcases, plus a backpack. And like many schools, Cornell will not permit parents or guests to participate in that Kleenex-and-photo-laden rite of passage: move-in day.
Instead, students will be tested on arrival, then given boxed meals and assigned a quarantine location, like a hotel, until they receive results. And if you’re from Oklahoma (or Texas, California, Florida and any number of other states currently suffering viral surges), you’ll also have to deal with New York state law, which mandates a 14-day quarantine before you get the green light to head to your dorm.
Of course, all of this could have changed since we wrote this article.
For instance, Duke University just rolled back its original plan — hatched earlier this summer — to bring all students back to campus. Now, campus housing will be limited to freshmen, sophomores and a handful of others. Meanwhile, Washington State University recently pulled the plug on all campus housing, choosing to go fully remote until at least the spring semester.
Really, it’s enough to make you want to take a gap year. Indeed, plenty of students are opting to do just that.
While nationwide statistics aren’t available, anecdotal reports indicate that many students found the virtual learning experience lacking. So, some have chosen to wait out the pandemic from the comfort of their childhood bedrooms or elsewhere.
At Williams College in Massachusetts, where Adam’s son Theo will be a sophomore, 10% of students have chosen to take a gap year. And even though the college is offering a hybrid model that will combine in-person classes with virtual learning, another 15% have enrolled remotely.
For those who stay at home, they’ll save on room and board, but they’ll still pay tuition. And for those — like Theo — who are ready to take a break from their parents, they’ll pay tuition, room and board. They’ll get a small discount because the school is forgoing its traditional month-long “winter term” in January, but, nevertheless, the college will realize the lion’s share of projected revenues.
That, of course, is vital for colleges and universities, as they need those dollars to pay faculty and staff and many other expenses. Some schools might be able to caulk short-term budget gaps with endowment funds, but especially for smaller colleges, endowments and operating margins are thin, so they cannot function with partial revenues and full expenses for long. Something has to give.
Right now, young people are stir crazy from spring and summer spent at home. Most are eager to return to their friends and campuses, even when college life might lack many of the traditional amenities, like fraternity and sorority parties, sporting events and most extracurricular activities.
But what happens when there are viral outbreaks? Will that change students’ — and their parents’ — appetite for risk?
Recently, a New York Times survey revealed there already have been more than 6,600 cases tied to 270 schools. And the academic year has yet to begin.
At Williams, they’ll try to control the virus through an initial quarantine followed by mandatory student testing twice each week, thanks to a partnership with one of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation’s sister organizations, Boston’s Broad Institute. But not all schools can afford such arrangements. And especially in universities with large student bodies or campuses in major cities, outbreaks will be inevitable.
When they occur, you’ll see as many different attempts to solve them as there are institutes of higher education. Because, if nothing else, colleges and universities are hotbeds for ideas. And nothing breeds creativity like a school that wants to stay open. Or young adults who can’t bear the prospect of returning home for another semester of dad jokes.