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 life-long 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% 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% 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.

Campus Chaos
A third of four-year nonprofit and public colleges are opening entirely or mostly in person, 27% are fully or primarily online and 21% 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%, switched from partly in-person to fully online.

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