Pity the Poor College Frosh: “Definitely Weird”

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The Wall Street Journal ran an article today on the travails afflicting college frosh, The College Freshman’s Life This Fall: ‘Definitely Weird’.

Roughly 1,300 colleges and universities are operating primarily or fully online this fall, while about 800 are primarily or fully in person, according to College Crisis Initiative, a tally of schools by Davidson College. Another 650 or so set out to offer hybrid instruction.

Given the state of the pandemic in the U.S., I’m surprised the numbers for in-person or hybrid instruction are so high.

Well, maybe not. As they’re no doubt largely driven by the tremendous economic pressures on colleges. How can they continue to justify their high fees – and accrue revenue from overpriced ancillary services such as dorm rooms and mandatory meal plans – unless students meet in person? And as we’ve discussed at length before, the pandemic is straining revenues throughout he collegiate system, from the elite to the bottom-end.

For anyone who might choose to look closely, it’s shameful that pressure for revenues is leading college administrators to put so many young people at risk of infection – not to mention their communities – by allowing in-person classes.Ofeven when these have web cancelled, students continue to live in dorms and other central living facilities. In fact, the best way to quell the pandemic is not to allow students to meet at state u – short-term pain would be reduced relative to long-term gain and we’d have the greatest chance that “normal” would emerge again.

The Washington Post has also run a piece on colleges reopening, The fall opening of colleges: Upheaval, pandemic weirdness and a fragile stability.

From the WaPo:

Arizona State President Michael M. Crow is cautiously optimistic about the fall term. But he knows the virus isn’t going to vanish any time soon.

“We’re operating under the assumption that covid is a permanent partner to the human ecosystem that we have to manage for the foreseeable future,” Crow said. “And we’re operating under that very, very daunting notion because it affects so many things that we do.”

The reopening of colleges amid a deadly pandemic has brought upheaval and uncertainty to campuses from coast to coast, with a staggering academic and emotional toll for students. But the chaos is not uniform.

Variations in testing protocols, campus locations and student housing patterns from school to school can play a huge role in success or failure. So do school culture, state politics and luck. Pauses and delays  of in-person teaching can shape the outcome. Geography is critical: The pandemic waxes in some regions as it wanes in others.

A degree of stability, perhaps tenuous, has taken hold at many schools that brought students to campus. It is a remarkable turn after the spring crisis that forced students nationwide to evacuate and professors to pivot practically overnight from classrooms to remote instruction. Leaders of these schools say they are gaining confidence they can keep campuses on track with research, teaching and learning. Students are settling into the strangeness.

Differences in approach reflect the contrasting political  approaches towards the virus that is playing out across the country:

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, sees a pattern that reflects regional differences over the need for pandemic restrictions. Schools in the South and Midwest, he said, tend to be opening more fully in person than those in the Northeast and on the West Coast. “It pretty much mirrors what you’re seeing in the politics of the country,” he said.

Tough on Students

I realize that asking college students to do zoom study while remaining under the roof of Mom & Dad is a bit of a hard sell. What 18 years old, eager for the limited emancipation going away to college provides, wishes to surrender their newfound freedom to practice social distancing at home?: From the WSJ:

Dahlia Low, 18, had fallen in love with Barnard College during a campus visit. “The minute I got on campus, I was like, ‘This is the school I have to be at,’ ” she said. “Everything about it felt like me and felt safe and felt welcoming.”

When it admitted her in the spring, she screamed with joy. Then in August, five days before she was supposed to head to Connecticut from her California home to quarantine at her aunt’s house before moving onto campus, as perNew York state rules, Barnard notified students fall term would be online only.

Ms. Low outfitted the small guesthouse in her family’s Los Angeles yard with gear she had planned to use at her dorm, so she could at least move out of her bedroom. She spends her days on Zoom, with classes including psychology, American literature and European history.

Nearly all her high-school friends have moved away to be at or near their colleges. “Jonathan, my 4-year-old brother, is currently my best friend,” Ms. Low said, laughing. “It’s definitely weird.”

But life at college is anything but what it’s cracked up to be either. According to the WSJ::

Some schools that intended to bring students back have retreated to online instruction amid Covid-19 outbreaks. Others are pushing through despite case counts topping 1,000 in the first weeks of classes.

To move into dorms, some students had to sign pledges they wouldn’t be around anyone besides their roommates without a mask on. Orientation and activity fairs went online. Intramural sports, and some varsity programs, are sidelined. Serendipitous dining-hall meetings are out.

Some who had dreamed of finding independence at school are transitioning into adulthood from their teenage bedrooms.

“Literally every single thing about attending a university is different this year,” said Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

Her campus greeted students with welcome kits including masks and a thermometer and is testing them for Covid-19 at least once a week. It doesn’t allow visitors in residence halls, and students are taking classes in-person and online, limiting opportunities for social interactions.

And it’s only going to worsen, this experiment in continued communal living during the era of COVID-19.  Especially if this news from Tulane is in any way representative of common practice, as per the WSJ:

Luke Halverstadt, 18, started college by flying from New York to New Orleans and spending two days alone in a hotel room awaiting Covid-19 test results.

He moved into a Tulane University dorm, where he and a roommate share a bathroom with a student who has a single room. He isn’t allowed to enter other residence halls; he and his roommate are each allowed one guest, for a total of four people in the room. The school said they are supposed to wear their masks when there are others present.

Half of Mr. Halverstadt’s classes are in person, the other half online.

“I was really excited to meet lots of new people and go out on the weekends,” he said. “That’s really difficult now, and kind of irresponsible.”

His social circle is limited mainly to people from his dorm floor. They have hit up local restaurants and took a kayak trip. He has played volleyball, masked. He said he has seen beer-pong games at a nearby park, students crowding together unmasked.

Tulane said it has disciplined some students for breaking school rules, including gathering in groups of more than a half-dozen in dorm rooms.

“Anything other than sitting in my dorm room carries varying levels of health risks for myself and my community,” Mr. Halverstadt said, “and the weight of that always being on my mind makes it hard to feel as free or independent as I would like.”

Alas, unlike places such as Hong Kong, which have to some extent quelled the pandemic, many places in the U.S. continues to maintain a cavalier attitude to the virus. And that, as my friend Sarah Borwein, a Canadian doctor practicing in Hong Kong says, you cannot do. This is disease that will exploit any opening you provide.

Contrast the prevailing practice at Duke University, which remains open, to that of two nearby schools in the Research Triangle, the flagship University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, both of which have had to send students home. As reported by the Washington Post:

One lesson from Duke: Density matters. While Duke tested students more aggressively than UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State, it also brought fewer to campus. Only freshmen, sophomores and a few others moved into dorms — 3,000 in all. Everyone has a single room, and traffic is much reduced in bathrooms and hallways.

Those who live nearby in Durham are only allowed on campus when they have a class. They can’t go to the dining halls, dorms or other places students would normally gather.
Duke officials are acutely aware that conditions could change at any moment. “Our mantra has been like a tournament: Survive and advance,” said Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld, who knows exactly how many days are left in the semester. “We want to get there. But we also want to get to Thursday.”

Now, I can remember those initial heady days of living away from home, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news. But given how many people have been sick in the U.S., I can’t help but think that if colleges had stayed locked down longer, the chances of stopping the pandemic,ic would be greater.

That of course has not proved true in many cases. And regular readers won’t be surprised that there’s a lot of money is at stake.

The difficulties at large public universities have tended to be greater than those at smaller private  institutions. Consider the situation at the University of Tennessess. According to the Washington Post:

Instructors scrambled to adapt. Idil Issak, a graduate teaching assistant in anthropology, began the semester with an in-person course that met twice a week. But after six of her students were forced to isolate, Issak added online instruction to ensure no one would be left out.

Issak said students should not bear the brunt of blame for spikes in cases. The situation, she said, is Tennessee’s responsibility. “If they’re really being honest with themselves,” Issak said, university officials know “it’s their fault. They’re just wanting to make money off these kids.”

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  1. JWP

    Something to be wary of will be the impact a whole year of remote learning will have on professional skills. lots of degrees and programs (hard sciences for sure) that rely on in person work will be spitting out students without that experience. I wonder what the effects will be.

    The amount of class periods and entire classes I’ve had that have been cancelled or moved to modules and no live meetings is well above 15 already. Profs are getting screwed having to adapt all of this on the fly and open to sharing the struggles of making this work. My self and probably millions of other students need that relationship with peers, a professor, tutor, or TA to work through tough topics and classes, and they are all but wiped out. I think the most valuable lesson students will learn from class this semester is the most effective way to look up the answers to test questions during the test.

    The mentality on campus is that pretty much everyone will get COVID at some point because a0 the measures the school has taken aren’t enough, and b) and more importantly, students just don’t care enough because chances are they won’t die.

    Might be high time to cut subsidies and tax breaks for private universities as this pandemic has laid bare their true function of enriching administrators. Until they do their job and commit to educate students, the money is wasted.

      1. JWP

        I hone in on private schools because private implies there’s no government money or say involved. I would think the government could withhold money from public schools until they change their pay structure.

        1. Acacia

          Could, yeah, but would they?

          E.g. University of California has lost a lot of budget but still seems to have lots of associate deans getting $250K/year. The admins save their own jobs and transfer the pain elsewhere.

        2. drumlin woodchuckles

          Haven’t the last few decades of Great Tax Rebellion already led to several decades of state government withholding support to state colleges and universities to the point where there is very little state government support left to withhold?

          If the state publics and their state governments ever decide to restore state tax-funded support to state colleges and universities, they could make such restoration of support conditional upon the state colleges and universities first restoring the administrator to professor to student ratios which existed before the Great Tax Revolt and also restoring the narrower pay differences between these groups.

          No rightsizing your administrative staff-numbers? No support for you. In a perfect future world.

    1. Keith

      “Something to be wary of will be the impact a whole year of remote learning will have on professional skills. lots of degrees and programs (hard sciences for sure) that rely on in person work will be spitting out students without that experience. I wonder what the effects will be. ”

      I suspect it will make students graduating in these years unemployable, with employers looking to higher those that graduated before the pandemic occurred and after these educational disruptions have been resolved.

      1. L

        I suspect the employability will vary due in part to the extent to which schools prepared for this, and prepared faculty for this. At my own institution we had extra time to prepare for online teaching and we have a track record with blended courses (and the associated infrastructure) that has made transitioning online possible. Not easy necessarily, but possible. On the other hand as the year has progressed we are spending more time trying to work with students and getting less support in terms of TAs meaning that students are getting less personal contact than they did before. That part may be rectified at some point but not immediately.

        Where I suspect this will really be felt is for entry. It is difficult for new students to get into an area, and for them to get to know faculty, find out about research opportunities, or just make those personal and professional connections that lead them to find resources. Most of the in-person events we used to hold at which I would meet new students or tell them about work (or at which they would meet each other) are cancelled, or online. And the time we might spend imagining new ways to do them is taken up dealing with other issues like online course management, and the added bureucracy of life in the time of COVID.

      2. Nick Alcock

        Why? With a huge proportion of work remote and likely to stay that way, surely skills picked up when doing everything remotely are extremely valuable?

  2. Paul

    You lost me right here: “it’s shameful that pressure for revenues is leading college administrators to put so many young people at risk of infection – not to mention their communities – by allowing in-person classes.”

    The CDC just today said that the information it had posted on the serious risks of “airborne” transmission of SARS-COV2 was posted in error. And this error was also posted due to pressure from the WHO. If you can seriously tell me that you believe anything coming from any politician, college administrator, or “scientist”, then I have this bridge…

    1. ChrisPacific

      If you can seriously tell me that you believe anything coming from any politician, college administrator, or “scientist”, then I have this bridge…

      You are sounding awfully like a Facebook echo chamber conspiracy theorist with that statement. Any scientists? All of humanity’s millennia of scientific achievement have nothing to offer in this situation? Who would you believe instead? Somebody online with a link and a lot of exclamation marks who happens to closely mirror your preconceptions?

      Yes, critical scrutiny is important and the signal to noise ratio isn’t the best right now, but that’s no excuse for dismissing everything as fake like Trump does. It’s easy enough to do in this case – just look at documented super spreader events from around the world, note the list of characteristics that nearly all of them have in common, and compare that to the characteristics of an in-person class.

  3. Lightningclap

    This crossed my mind before, will a degree earned during 2020 be suspect to potential employers?

    In our house, it was clear the colleges were bringing kids back to school in-person for their own economic reasons. We could see how that would play out, so the freshman is home, doing online classes from our local Community College. His sister is in Nursing, requiring in-person training, so she is at her campus, surrounded by non-compliant classmates.
    The educational institutions have been extremely irresponsible.

    1. Keith

      I think it will. You keep hearing about the fights in the news about students wanting discounts due to diminished learning occurring on campus, and while some aspects of education can be done remotely without adverse affect, some things need to be done on campus, like labs. Another factor, tutoring and assistance. If the person is having difficulty grasping a subject, quite often personal and direct contact is needed to rectify the issue.

            1. Arizona Slim

              I’ll betcha money that they go all-virtual well before Thanksgiving. Ditto for the University of Arizona.

    2. Big River Bandido

      I wonder if the situation might instead just revert to earlier ways of living. Through to the end of the 19th century, very few lawyers in America went to law school. Most “read law” essentially as apprentices in the office of a local lawyer. As the American state apparatus declines, and the machines begin to fail, and the people running the machines no longer know how they work or how to fix them…perhaps many aspects of daily life will move back to that earlier, less credentialed era.

      One thing is likely: the “new normal” will favor the self-starting and self-motivated student over the coddled and lazy, and will place a premium on those who learn to teach themselves. This has always been true, but it will be way more so now than it has been in the last 2 decades.

  4. William Hunter Duncan

    And I thought college was an exercise in turning young people into debt serfs before the pandemic!

    Maybe we should make a law that says administrators, creditors and all the idiots including Biden who voted for the 2005 bankruptcy bill must take on the school debt of anyone who defaults on school debt?

  5. Bill Carson

    My daughter is a high school senior, and I’m worried about what college will look like a year from now. Will there be more freshmen, since some potential students decided to take a gap year? Will there be more competition for acceptance and scholarships? This year will affect several years to come.

    1. Glen

      Investigate sending your daughter abroad for college – seriously.

      We sent our daughter to England for a year – it was LESS EXPENSIVE (total cost was less which included travel, boarding, food, everything) than sending her to the local state university, and the quality of the education was better.

      American college education is such a rip off it’s ridiculous.

  6. Forrest

    I agree that colleges have huge financial pressures, admin sucks etc., but you can’t simply sit this virus out. It’s not going anywhere; it will join the various flus that we get seasonally. We have to come up with risk-balanced solutions now. Don’t pretend some vaccine will solve this, it hasn’t for the other flus that millions get shots for each year.

  7. km

    Did not Frank Zappa teach the masses about the respective benefits offered by college, versus those offered by public libraries?

    Well, how the [familyblog] am I supposed to hook up with this stupid mask on?

    n.b. I have no shortage of formal higher educational credentials, but I think that Zappa was onto something.

  8. Shiloh1

    As someone who went to college ‘78-‘82 in Chicago … with the drinking, sex, driving/late night L riding from Division St. and living a couple of blocks away from a mile of high-rise CHA housing projects, Covid would have been as scary as drinking warm beer.

  9. Swamp Yankee

    I feel very badly for younger people, especially freshmen. I have some sympathy because 9/11 happened ten days into my freshman year of college, and it was a shattering way to be introduced to non-childhood (at least ostensibly) life. I can only imagine what this is like, since we’re now at 66 9/11s worth of deaths, and counting.

    And yes, this is obviously on the Administrators and their cynical and deeply reckless cash grab. They know what 18 year olds are going to do. And still they proceed, because in many cases, the school will fail if they don’t. And then they’re out of a golden rice bowl — the Dean who is trying to break the grad student strike at my alma mater UMich, and whom Wokeistas were trying to claim was somehow threated with violence against women by a union protest outside her house makes $350,000/year; the Community College that recently cut my and a number of other positions had recently been paying administrators $190,000/year, and was already deeply in debt from incompetence and corruption.

    A hard wind is blowing through higher ed, and it is in the same position as airlines.

    1. anon

      I was also a freshman at UMich during 9/11. I remember my teacher being terrified and sending us all back to our dorms. However, life on campus continued and I did not need to return home. I feel badly for all young people today especially those who come from poor or abusive households where they likely will not have a spacious house or a guest house decked out as a temporary dorm, like the Barnard girl mentioned in the article.

      1. Swamp Yankee

        Thanks, Arizona Slim! And anon, I should be clear I didn’t go to UMich as an undergrad, but to Williams College in the Berkshires, where the planes literally flew over us.

        As you say, it was nothing compared to this.

  10. eg

    Our eldest is in first year in our nation’s capital (Ottawa). She is in residence there, though all first year classes are online. Residence occupancy is down, with single accommodations in double rooms. She has already had to get tested once because a student in one of the other buildings was a confirmed case, and had to isolate for a week while waiting for testing and results.
    Everyone is happier with her out of the house, but we will see whether or not the arrangement succeeds. Her subject area is non-technical, so the absence of lab work is not an issue.

  11. Palaverve

    There is a Covid body count quota under that curve. Many institutions will try to claim an outsized share of new cases before being sent back to the starting line. If those institutions were ill and failing before the pandemic, then the disease would have spread to their minds, as it clearly has in the politicians.

    US domestic policy is Darwinism. The big tadpoles eating up the little tadpoles in an evaporating pond. Or maybe we’re all foxes, the kind that mangle all the chickens before making off with just one. It’s clear to me that most Americans can’t see a sneeze beyond their own noses and in one year the virus will have permanent US citizenship.

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