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Sophie Fogel spent much of her first semester at the University of Pittsburgh alone in her dorm room; food shopping became a fun escape. Credit: Mollie Rothbaum

Toward the end of her first semester at the University of Pittsburgh, Sophie Fogel spent every night studying alone in her dorm room, eating lukewarm takeout meals from the cafeteria and wondering why she bothered going away to college in the first place.

Fogel, 18, can recite a list of typical college experiences she has missed out on: study groups, small seminars, office hours with professors, parties, football games, a chance to meet new people from around the world. Her interactions were limited to the three other girls in her pod; her one class that was scheduled to be held in person met just twice. By the time finals came around, campus felt like a ghost town. Fogel decided to go home early, and later learned a coronavirus outbreak forced her entire floor to quarantine.

“After that, I decided I did not want to go back,” said Fogel, who is taking the second semester off. “I really did not expect college to be such a strange experience. I barely left my dorm room.”

“I really did not expect college to be such a strange experience. I barely left my dorm room.”

– Sophie Fogel, 18, University of Pittsburgh freshman

Fogel was among four high school seniors I interviewed last spring when they were still in pandemic shock, lamenting the abrupt end of in-person classes and the loss of graduation rituals. They agonized over college costs and decisions, uncertain how drastically the virus would reshape their family’s finances and their educations. They had no way of knowing that U.S. colleges would experience tens of thousands of coronavirus cases in the months to come, canceling orientations, shuttering dorms or limiting their capacity and, in some cases, sending students back home.  

Related: With decisions coming due sleepless high seniors worry college may not be worth it

Maddie Drake of Greenville, Kentucky, had accepted a scholarship to Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts and expected to become the first in her family to attend college out of state. In preparation, she quit her job at a Sonic Drive-In and packed for dorm living – only to learn that she wouldn’t be going anywhere after all. Mount Holyoke would be holding most of its classes online.

She got used to logging into lectures via Zoom, from her childhood bedroom, next to a pair of Mickey Mouse ears from her marching band’s trip to Disney’s Epcot Center a few years back.

Olivia Weinstock commuted to college to save money instead of attending her dream school, resigning herself to another year living at home. Credit: Ryan Weinstock

“Disappointing is a good way to describe it,” said Drake, who had the option of moving onto campus for the spring semester but opted to stay home again to save money, and because she was wary of a diminished college experience filled with lockdown restrictions. “I still haven’t set foot in the state of Massachusetts.’’

Olivia Weinstock turned down her first choice of Chapman University in Orange, California, for financial reasons, worried her father would lose his job as a pilot in pandemic layoffs. Instead she planned to commute to nearby California State University-Long Beach, but with all classes online, never set foot on campus.

“At first, I was really sad but then I got used to it and made a mini-school in my garage and then in my living room,” said Weinstock. This semester, she’s still taking classes from her bedroom, working part-time and hoping to get her own off-campus apartment with friends for her sophomore year.

Catherine Asiedu, who longed to go away, instead settled on living at home and attending the State University of New York at Buffalo. “I was upset and didn’t want to be home at first, but now I’m kind of thankful,” said Asiedu, 18. There were some silver linings: She visited campus twice a week for an in-person seminar, got good grades, made the dean’s list and met some new friends, even while trying to study in her bedroom and basement with younger siblings underfoot.

Many colleges came under intense criticism for their chaotic and uneven coronavirus response last fall and are still offering limited, if any in-person classes this spring. At Columbia University, where annual estimated costs are upwards of $80,000, some students are so dissatisfied with the experience they’ve launched a tuition strike.

Catherine Asiedu stayed near her family for freshman year and attended the State University of New York at Buffalo, studying at home wherever she could find some peace. Credit: Jennipher Acheampong

Residential colleges continue to struggle with the decision of whether and how to bring students safely back this spring, amid CDC guidelines that have left them with a great degree of discretion and led to an array of different plans and approaches. Concerns remain that college campuses are coronavirus superspreaders

More than a third of prospective college students said they are reconsidering their higher education plans, according to a poll released in December, amid widespread concern about the value of remote learning.

College presidents, meanwhile, are worried about the virus’ toll not just on their students, but also on their institutions’ finances – concerns that portend significant challenges for higher education going forward, said Michelle R. Weise, author of the new “Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs That Don’t Even Exist Yet.”

“The [remote learning] experience is not good, and it is leaving a really bad taste for many learners,” Weise told me, noting that traditional universities in crisis mode don’t have a background in instructional design and online learning that could help make remote classes more meaningful for students. “They need to improve the online experience if they are going to continue in this manner.”

“The [remote learning] experience is not good, and it is leaving a really bad taste for many learners. They need to improve the online experience if they are going to continue in this manner.”

– Michelle R. Weise, author of “Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs That Don’t Even Exist Yet”

Even so, replicating online the liveliness, magic and constant sense of possibility that comes with being away from home and on a four-year residential campus simply cannot be done. Weise believes that if the pandemic causes students to continue questioning their college educations, many traditional residential colleges could find themselves “in financial duress.” That could force them to rethink their model and shift some of their recruitment “toward the much larger market, working age adults,” she said.

Related: Quarantined on campus with coronavirus outbreaks going is this really what college looks like now?

Maddie Drake was excited to attend Mount Holyoke College, she said, but “never set a foot in the state of Massachusetts.” Credit: Maddie Drake

In the meantime, schools are trying their best to provide a quality experience at a distance for students like Drake, whose first semester at Mount Holyoke entailed endless Zoom classes, a part-time job at a Dollar Store and attempts at making new friends online.

It’s a far cry from the experience she anticipated: brilliant New England foliage, the beloved tradition of nightly milk and cookies in different residence halls and a chance to take classes at four nearby colleges. Drake had hoped to join a debate club and participate in student government, but doing so virtually felt pointless.

Mount Holyoke could only house students who were unable to go back to their homes abroad or for whom the college was their permanent address last fall; that amounted to 150 students, just 19 of them first-year students. This semester, all students who wanted to live on campus were invited to apply; some 735 students who agreed to quarantine for two weeks, wear a face mask and sign a compact agreeing to regular testing and keeping a six-foot distance from others are back.

Mount Holyoke, where annual estimated expenses can top $72,600, offered students a tuition credit of 4.5 percent for the 2020-21 school year, both for in-person and remote learning, according to Marcella Runell Hall, vice president for student life and dean of students.

Room and board charges were reduced for a shorter semester, and students like Drake who learned remotely saved that portion of their bill.

“I desperately want to be on my own, but I’ll just go [to campus] in the fall, and God forbid nothing will prevent me,” said Drake, who said she ultimately realized there was nothing she could do but make the best of a bad situation. “In all of my professors, I could see a really strong dedication to making it worth our time, and it worked. I can’t say I’m bored, even I’m mostly in my pajamas in my childhood bedroom.”

At the University of Pittsburgh, where tuition held flat this year, Fogel changed her plans when she came to the realization that college during coronavirus “was just not worth how much I’m paying for what I’m getting.”

With a friend, Fogel instead has applied to a program called Workaway, a popular gap year program where she’ll be connected to volunteer projects. Once the pandemic subsides, she hopes to return to Pitt, where tuition for out-of-state students like her is $32,656.

Pitt reduced some of its fees this year based on activity restrictions, according to Kevin Zwick, the school’s communications manager. Some 445 students tested positive for Covid from August 1 through Nov 20 when the term ended, according to a public dashboard the school maintains.

Fogel’s difficult experience was driven in part by the isolation she felt. She only had her pod mates – three girls in single rooms near her – to talk to. The gym was closed the first month of school and after that it required an appointment. She was restricted from freely entering campus buildings or dorms and to attend a football game she had to win a raffle. (She didn’t.)

One irony: Fogel had chosen Pitt, a large public school, because she’d wanted a very different educational experience from the small, all-girls high school she’d attended in Buffalo, New York. Yet most of her social life consisted of hanging out with another friend from her high school who’d also enrolled at Pitt, along with trips back home to visit friends there.

There were a couple upsides though, she said. “I got college credits. And I got good grades. That’s something I can take away from this,” Fogel told me.

Asiedu also managed to find her an upside: Classes were hybrid during the first semester so she got a chance to take a class on campus. She still longs to live in a dorm, though, and hopes she can ultimately move from home.

For now, though, she said, “college is in my bedroom and basement whenever it is quiet.”

This story about the college experience was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Liz Willen, a longtime education reporter, has been proud to lead an award-winning staff of The Hechinger Report since 2011. She was recently honored for commentary writing by the New York Press Club....

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