As we tape up the boxes to ship off to two universities, COVID’s Delta variant continues to rage on in parts of the country. And my wife and I, like many parents, wonder what the 2021-2022 college school year will hold for our two sons. Will they spend much of the year in their room, watching lectures over Zoom? How well with they be able to connect with their peers? Will they have to mask-up constantly? What events will be possible?

Around the world, we are running a myriad of COVID natural experiments. College campuses are particularly interesting laboratories, because they are semi-closed societies with their own policy-setting administration, rules, monitoring tools and diktats. They involve residential living and close contact. They have built-in healthcare services. They tend to have very bimodal age distributions — lots of younger students and older faculty.

If you’re in college administration, you have many levers to tweak: mask mandates, social distancing, ventilation, symptomatic or asymptomatic testing frequency, and more. Thus, as with last year, there are literally hundreds of thousands of “natural experiments” being run. It’s as though each is its own video game simulation, but in real life, with very real consequences. Take thousands of people, put them in a place with a given set of rules, and watch the results. We’ll be watching our two boys’ experiences.

Judging up close even from a sample of two, the 2021-2022 intervention regimes will vary widely. Most have vaccine mandates, but policies around masks, social distancing, remote or in-person learning, faculty mandates, dining experiences, frequency of asymptomatic testing — even intangible sense of optimism — vary widely.

Such observational experiments are nowhere close to randomized controlled trials, but they’re close enough to offer some comparative insights and hypotheses. I have to confess I already have my hypothesis about which campus experience, overall, would be the one I’d choose for 2021-2022, and which of our sons will likely come out “winning” the year by sheer luck of where he’s landing. But then again, that’s applying my own biases to the mix, and luckily each is excited for their own rapidly-approaching year. It’s all subjective… until June 2022 and beyond, when the “right” policy mix to have chosen will be much clearer.

Comparing Two Schools

We are grateful beyond measure that our two sons are attending two terrific schools. One is off to his junior year at Northwestern University in the Chicago suburb of Evanston Illinois, and the other begins his first year at Vanderbilt University in Nashville Tennessee. Sibling rivalry will no doubt continue.

These two universities share a great deal, making for particularly interesting comparison. Both universities are world-class research institutions; each is listed as a Top 20 University by US News & World Report. They have attached, well-respected medical schools and teaching hospitals. Both take COVID-19 very seriously. Both have access to, and generate, leading-edge research on COVID-19 itself (see some of Vanderbilt’s and Northwestern’s.) In other words, we can take as a given that their administrations care about this pandemic deeply, and have ready access to world-class, informed experts and data.

Environmentally, too, they’re similar: both are located in relatively suburban campuses which are leafy, academic enclaves within larger cities. Both have enrollment in the tens of thousands, though Northwestern is just under twice Vanderbilt’s overall size.

Policy Similarity: Vaccination Required

With respect to COVID-19 policies, both universities require that all students be fully vaccinated. And thankfully, I’m seeing neither complaint nor concern about this on either university’s social media parents’ discussion groups.

But vaccination mandates for colleges certainly aren’t universally popular; this week, the Supreme Court reviewed a petition from a group of Indiana University students objecting to the vaccine mandate. Justice Amy Coney Barrett rejected the petition on behalf of the court.

Thousands of colleges and universities have required that all incoming students be fully vaccinated, barring medical exception. But that’s where the similarities end.

Different Approaches, Different Intervention Postures

Northwestern’s Intervention-Intensive Posture

Northwestern is taking a decidedly more intervention-intensive posture. They reinstated a campus-wide masking requirement on August 4th 2021, applying to all students, faculty, staff and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, except when in a private room or actively eating or drinking. All unvaccinated undergraduate and professional studies students are required to take two Abbott rapid antigen tests weekly; if you’re vaccinated (which our son is), there is no asymptomatic vaccination requirement.

As for in-person learning, at present writing, Northwestern’s administration commits only to a “best efforts will be made” messaging that there will be as many classes in-person.

For our rising junior, of his eighteen months as an NU student, just five of them have involved in-person classes, with the other 13 being via either pre-recorded lecture or streaming services. Last year at this time, we had the boxes packed and plane flights booked, only to hear at the last minute that sophomores and freshman shouldn’t go to campus, nor should they even come back to Evanston itself. A scramble ensued. A full one sixth of his college experience hasn’t even been spent in Evanston, but Zooming in from Seattle, and a third more Zooming in from his on campus room. Regardless of what comes next, he is part of the class that will have had the least amount of on-campus experience in Northwestern’s history. So restoration of in-person learning and activities are of special interest to him and us.

Vanderbilt’s Intervention-Lighter Posture

By contrast, Vanderbilt was among the first major universities to publicly commit, back in March of 2020, to full in-person, residential learning for Fall of 2021, and as of this writing, they have not retracted their stance. They’ve also got an in-person Family Weekend planned for the first weekend of October 2021, complete with football game and social and learning events. Northwestern tentatively has a plan for a Family Weekend November 5-7, and emphasizes with every communication that it is subject to local conditions.

With respect to masks, Vanderbilt has been more reticent to impose new requirements, though they did just say that as of August 16th, masks will be required indoors, except for offices and shared workspaces (for fully vaccinated individuals.) And they are actively monitoring when to update this guidance. For the 2021 school year start, masks are not mandated for vaccinated individuals in private offices or shared workspaces under most conditions.

So Much Variance At Adult Life’s Launchpad

In a week, our Seattle-raised eighteen year old will be getting settled in his first-year dorm room, getting to know his new roommate from Miami, Florida. The Miami student, benefitting from a lockdown-light approach in his city and state, will very likely have enjoyed his learning in-person all year. Our son will report that his senior year was spent connecting in via Zoom from his bedroom here in Seattle.

This kind of scene is playing out now in dorm rooms across the world. They’re comparing notes on us. Did we, the adults, get it right for them?

They’re finding out very clearly just how varied it’s all been, on a one-to-one level. A vast new layer of differences and advantages have been layered onto existing socioeconomic differences and living situations at home, abilities, disabilities and more. This layer involves voluntary, deliberate administrative policies imposed upon them, without their input, for better or worse.

Given the varied university experiences I’m already seeing as a parent, I fast forward in my mind to four years from now. When this generation graduates, they’ll meet someone at work or socially, and it will all start again: “Say. Did you too Zoom in for half of your college experience?” We are adding new layers upon layers of differentiation to an already stratified society. A kaleidoscope looking at a mosaic. Some will have burned the midnight oil to master standardized tests, others will have opted not to take them. Some will have endured a life of lockdowns or restriction, others relative openness. Today, at the very time they are reaching for new freedoms, they’re navigating highly varied regimes of what is and is not allowed. Checking in with an ever-changing rule regime, and staying within the prescribed guardrails (or finding ways not to, as the case may be) will be a big part of their psyche and skillset.

Information Gap for Parents and Students

These variances are necessary, I suppose, but I hope that we can both learn from them and make their differences more visible to students and families during their college selection process. Will there be a reckoning at the end of the year? A harm-reducing, optimal winning slate declared? Thus far, I’m underwhelmed by the degree of objective, empirical comparison of the intervention regimes imposed in the 2020-2021 school year, given all that’s at stake. Perhaps we don’t want to know what we’ve lost in the process; decidedly, some will lose, and others will come out ahead.

The impatience, too, is palpable. For instance, there is a growing sense on the Northwestern University Parents Facebook group, particularly among Class of 2024 and 2025 parents, that more effort should be made to publicly commit to full in-person learning, or at least be very transparent about which classes will be fully in-person. In regular “Return to Campus” discussions, Northwestern’s leadership has been relatively noncommittal, assuring that they’ve learned that some forms of remote education actually work very well for them. Humor helps with coping: Last year at this time, when Northwestern suddenly moved fully online for freshman and sophomores, my son joked, “We’re all University of Phoenix students now.”

That’s all well and good, and I appreciate that administrations have a lot to solve for. But it raises a question. Going forward, shouldn’t applicants and parents know more about a university’s overall intervention posture before enrolling?

Among other things, universities could be asked to report the percentage of in-person classes to guidebooks and college rating institutions like Barrons and the Princeton Review, and to include this information in their annual reporting to the “common data set” used in college comparison. And shouldn’t percentage of in-person learning be factored in as part of a college rankings? Do “mostly online” educational experiences deserve to be in their own evaluation category?

Now that COVID is endemic and remote education has gotten widespread awareness and trial, it’s quite likely colleges will continue to partially adopt remote education to varying degrees, particularly for undergraduates. I’ll admit it can have many benefits, but also many drawbacks. At a minimum, though, with the kinds of tuition fees these universities demand, it’s reasonable insist that they be more transparent about it, as it so dramatically impacts the college experience and might or might not match the desires of the student.

Now that we’re headed into year two, it’s time to let in some daylight. Universities have been too able to keep their decisions close-to-the-vest. Some appear too ready to impose cost on those who are already enrolled rather than aggressively fight for a full return to in-person learning. In my more cynical moments I feel some are even coasting a bit on a brand that got them there, not wanting to challenge what may be a somewhat reluctant cadre of faculty, without enough of a sense of immediate urgency to restore to the best that an in-person university learning experience can offer, which is what built their worldwide reputation in the first place. I hope I’m wrong.

Off to ship those boxes, and hope for the best.

UPDATE, August 17 2021: In a Return to Campus webinar yesterday, Northwestern’s administration indicated that most if not all undergraduate classes will be fully in-person. Remote viewing / recording options are discouraged, and ultimately up to the instructor.

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