The University of Notre Dame’s president apologized for posing near students for a photo. Princeton canceled in-person classes just weeks before they begin. Canada’s border patrol turned away a mother driving her daughter to McGill because of her U.S. citizenship.
The back-to school rituals of America’s college-bound have always entailed some drama: long journeys, family squabbles and children away from home for the first time. But they’re nothing compared with 2020, the year that COVID-19 transformed higher education.
Until now, colleges moved in a kind of lock-step. The most selective ones charged similar $70,000-plus annual prices, bragged about small classes and doting professors and marketed lifelong networks forged in dorms and dining halls.
Today, in Massachusetts alone, the variety is dizzying. Northeastern University has gone all in on in-person instruction. Long famed for promoting work experience, it is now trumpeting another specialty: an on-campus lab to process 5,000 COVID-19 tests a day.
Or consider Tufts University. Colleges, eager to win over new donors, have long welcomed parents to help kids decorate or hear from administrators in orientation. Tufts said some students will have to move into their dorms without any help from parents or loved ones.
Harvard University, where all classes will be virtual, isn’t requiring students to come at all. Only a quarter of undergraduates will be on campus, and they’ll face a world where they’ll be tested regularly and have to attest daily they are symptom free — or, in its parlance, are “Crimson Clear.” Some 20 percent of freshmen decided to defer enrolling, postponing the hottest ticket in higher ed.
Meanwhile, Williams College is doing the unthinkable. Acknowledging the reality of a diminished, socially distant semester, it is offering a 15 percent discount.
“It’s a tough time for students who dreamed of the college experience they saw in movies and TV,” said Christopher Marsicano, an assistant professor who studies higher education at Davidson College in North Carolina.
Some will have it worse than others. At Duke University in North Carolina, junior Shrey Majmudar will be trading a dorm for his own room at the college-owned Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club. The school reserved lodgings there to provide more social distancing. Yet, there will be sacrifices, as well. In a school known for its spirit, Duke is restricting gatherings to 10 students or fewer.
A third of four-year nonprofit and public colleges are opening entirely or mostly in person, 27 percent are fully or primarily online and 21 percent are a hybrid, or a mix of the two, according to Davidson’s College Crisis Initiative, which is tracking universities’ responses. In the last week, 40 schools, or 3 percent, switched from partly in-person to fully online.
The about-faces can be tough. Princeton University student Juan Nova will drive 17 hours from his home near Orlando to New Jersey, so he can live in an off-campus apartment. As a sophomore, Nova wasn’t due to return in-person until the spring but had wanted to take part in whatever campus life he could in the fall. He and his two roommates signed a lease before the school switched to entirely online. By then, they were locked in.
“It was an abrupt change,” said Nova, 19. “I understand the decision to stay safe.”
The $600 billion-plus higher education industry is doing what it can to stay solvent. About 60 percent to 80 percent of revenue comes from tuition and fees, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. College communities rely on the institutions as engines of employment, tourism and economic innovation.
Normally, as students return, administrators like to schmooze with families. But, in perhaps a first, Notre Dame President John Jenkins had to issue a mea culpa for standing too close to students. The school has reported 19 COVID-19 cases.
“Even I was swept up in the excitement and celebration of your return. In a few instances, over recent days, I stopped for photos with some of you on the quad,” Jenkins wrote last week.
Few can match the drop-off ordeal of Vivian Mamelak, whose 18-year-old daughter Leena Demers is starting her first year at McGill University in Montreal. She and her husband rented a house not far from the campus, so they could quarantine for the required two weeks. Mamelak, unlike her husband and daughter, isn’t a Canadian citizen.
To make the case that the family should be together, Mamelek brought her marriage certificate, as Canadian officials had instructed her to do. No dice. Border agents turned her away, since Canada has restricted travel by Americans amid the coronavirus. The family had to drive back to Plattsburgh, N.Y., so Mamelak could rent a car to return home to New York City. Her daughter is scheduled to start later this month and will live in a dorm while taking class mostly online.
“I wanted to take my daughter to university and get her settled into her dorm room and have that whole rite of passage with her, and I was sent away,” Mamelak said. “It was very sad.”