Back to College While COVID: A Tale of Two Schools


Photo by Headway on Unsplash

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 rooms, 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 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 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.

Judging up close even from our small 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 — are often quite different.

I 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 parental biases to the mix, and luckily each son is excited for his 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.

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 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.

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; last 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.

Northwestern’s Intervention-Intensive Approach

Northwestern is taking a decidedly more intervention-intensive posture, imposing it earlier and with generally quicker triggers. They reinstated a campus-wide masking requirement on August 4, 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-school 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, for much of the summer Northwestern’s administration committed only to a “best efforts will be made” messaging that there will be as many classes in-person, though very recently announced most fall classes will start in-person. Still, communiques are mixed. For instance, last week, the Weinberg School of Arts & Sciences announced simultaneously that office hours must be in person, but also that remote office hours are the “next normal.”

For our rising junior, of his 18 months as an NU student, just five of these months have involved in-person classes, with the other 13 being via either pre-recorded lecture or streaming services. He’s had six quarters so far; of those, only one was fully competed in person. So in-person learning is of special interest to him and us.

Vanderbilt’s Intervention-Lighter Approach

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 16, 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.

This week, our Seattle-raised 18-year-old will be getting settled in his first-year dorm room and 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 certainly finding out just how varied it’s all been. A vast new layer of differences and advantages have been added onto existing socioeconomic differences and living situations at home, abilities, disabilities and more. This new filter involves voluntary, deliberate administrative policies imposed upon them, often without their input, for better or worse.

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 levels of differentiation to an already stratified society. 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) will be a big part of their psyche and skillset.

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 formula 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 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. Humor helps: Last summer, 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 contend with. 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 percentages 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?

It’s quite likely colleges will continue to adopt remote education to varying degrees, particularly for undergraduates. Distance learning can have many benefits but also many drawbacks. At a minimum, though, with the kinds of tuition fees these universities demand, it’s reasonable to insist that they be more transparent about it, as it dramatically impacts the college experience and might not match the desires of the student.

Universities have been too prone to keeping their decisions close-to-the-vest. Some appear too ready to impose costs 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 these colleges are overweighting the constraints and desires of long-term faculty vs. the shorter-term needs of the student body. And there is not enough sense of immediate urgency to restore to the best that an in-person university learning experience can offer. That’s what built their worldwide reputations (and lofty tuitions) in the first place.

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

Steve Murch
Steve Murch
Steve’s a Seattle-based entrepreneur and software leader and father of three. He’s half Canadian, and east-coast born and raised. Steve has made the Pacific Northwest his home since 1991, when he moved here to work for Microsoft. He’s started and sold multiple Internet companies. Politically independent, he writes on occasion about city politics and national issues, and created Alignvote in the 2019 election cycle. He holds a BS in Applied Math (Computer Science) and Business from Carnegie Mellon University, a Masters in Computer Science from Stanford University, and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Steve volunteers when time allows with Habitat for Humanity, University District Food Bank, Technology Access Foundation (TAF) and other organizations in Seattle. More of his writings can be found at


  1. Great hearing about the differences in campuses and learning experiences. Thank you, Steve. As my sons are way beyond college (one is a Ph.D biochemist), it’s not something I’m dealing with now. But especially interesting to read about Northwestern, where I took my first two years. Can’t imagine what my journalism classes would have been like taught by Zoom. It must require marvelously flexible and inventive profs and students. Thanks for updating us.


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