Why Did Colleges Reopen During the Pandemic?

American colleges botched the pandemic from the very start. Caught off guard in the spring, most of them sent everyone home in a panic, in some cases evicting students who had nowhere else to go. School leaders hemmed and hawed all summer about what to do next and how to do it. In the end, most schools reopened their campuses for the fall, and when students returned, they brought the coronavirus along with them. Come Labor Day, 19 of the nation’s 25 worst outbreaks were in college towns, including the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Iowa State in Ames, and the University of Georgia in Athens. By early October, the White House Coronavirus Task Force estimated that as many as 20 percent of all Georgia college students might have become infected.

Who’s to blame for the turmoil? College leaders desperate to enroll students or risk financial collapse; students, feeling young and invincible, who were bound to be dumb and throw parties; red-state governments and boards that pressured universities to reopen.

But ordinary Americans also bear responsibility. They didn’t just want classes to resume in person—they wanted campuses to return to normal. By one measure, more than two-thirds of students wanted to head back to their colleges. Even parents deeply worried about the safety of their kids still packed bags and road-tripped across the country to drop them off at school. When some colleges moved to Zoom, students and parents revolted. More than 100 colleges, both private (Brown, Duke) and public (Rutgers, North Carolina), have been sued for tuition refunds. You can understand why. It costs almost $60,000 per year to attend Brown, and that’s before room, board, books, and fees.

But what did families think they were paying for? Classes are still happening, and degrees will still be conferred. Parents and students are miffed because they don’t really buy teaching when they pay tuition. Instead, they get something more abstract: the college experience. Some of that experience involves education—the seminar discussion in a facsimile of a medieval monastery, the cram session under the vaulted ceiling of a library, the brisk, after-class chat with a professor across a grassy quad. But most of it doesn’t, especially the stuff that can’t be done from a distance, such as moving away from home for the first time, swilling booze at a house party, touring houses during sorority rush, applying face paint for a football game, decorating the cold, cinder-block walls of a new dorm room.

The pandemic is changing lots of things, some forever. Office work seems to be on the decline, as companies abandon pricey real estate and the nuisance of commutes. Online grocery shopping, once a luxury, may finally be deposing the supermarket’s century-long reign. The pandemic has upended air travel, dining out, working out, and weddings. But even though the coronavirus has massively disrupted American higher education, many colleges are already settling back into their usual routines: move-in day, rush, homecoming, and all the rest.