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A tuition break, half-empty campuses and home-testing kits: More top colleges announce fall plans

A pedestrian exits Harvard Yard at the closed Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass., in April. (Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg News)

Princeton University announced Monday it will cut tuition 10 percent in the coming school year and bring no more than half its undergraduates to the campus in New Jersey, an extraordinary acknowledgment of how the coronavirus pandemic has hobbled the operations of a school that aims to provide education through experiences inside and outside of the classroom.

“We do believe that being immersed in a learning environment matters,” Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton’s president, said. The discount from the previously announced rate will set tuition at about $48,500.

Eisgruber said he knew of no similar price cut in Princeton’s history. “This is one heck of a crisis,” he said.

Also on Monday, Harvard University said it will bring about 40 percent of its undergraduates to its campus in Massachusetts, most of them freshmen. All undergrad classes in the fall will be delivered remotely, no matter where the students live, but Harvard’s tuition will remain the same: about $49,700.

Georgetown University, meanwhile, will invite freshmen to its D.C. campus and bar most others from living there in an effort to protect public health. Georgetown President John J. DeGioia said the university is weighing its tuition policy amid the coronavirus constraints. “We haven’t brought closure to that yet,” DeGioia said. Georgetown’s announced tuition is roughly $57,000.

At all three universities, many students qualify for financial aid and pay far less than the full price. There also can be various fees and, for those who live on campus, charges for room and board.

The fall plans from the three universities are the latest in a wave of announcements as higher education leaders scramble to determine when and how they can bring students back to campuses that have been empty, or nearly so, for months.

In March, students nationwide were forced to evacuate dormitories and finish the spring term through remote learning. The dispersal was meant to protect campus communities from a virus that has so far killed at least 127,000 Americans.

Now, educators are contemplating an extremely limited resumption of the campus experience, complete with masks, viral testing regimens, quarantine housing and a plethora of online classes.

Nationwide, there are vast differences in approach among schools that range from two-year community colleges to four-year research universities. Some are bringing nearly all students back to campus for at least some face-to-face instruction, while others are planning for nearly all courses to be remote.

Harvard said it is giving priority access to first-year students to help them acclimate to college life in Cambridge despite the unprecedented disruptions of the coronavirus. It will also open housing to “those who must be on campus to progress academically” and certain others in need. The announcement came from Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and does not include Harvard’s various professional schools.

“Some of the attributes that we most value about our campus are exactly the things that make adaptation to pandemic conditions particularly challenging,” Harvard said. “Our bustling urban environment, the ease of grabbing the T into Boston, our intergenerational residential communities that house 98 percent of our undergraduates, our global research community of students, faculty, staff, postdocs and visitors from around the world — Harvard was built for connection, not isolation.”

Without a vaccine or effective treatments for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, Harvard acknowledged, “we know that no choice that reopens the campus is without risk.” The university said it hopes to avoid a scenario in which it is forced again to ask students to leave, on short notice, before the end of the semester.

Princeton plans to bring freshmen and juniors to campus for the fall term, then sophomores and seniors in the spring. Most instruction will be remote. In some cases, Princeton said, faculty might be able to teach a smaller course, seminar or laboratory class face to face for those who are on campus. “Such courses will require social distancing, face-covering, and special care in entering and exiting buildings and classrooms,” Princeton said. “We hope to know which courses will be offered in person by late August.”

Coronavirus limbo: College students are angry and anxious as they await news about the fall

Georgetown estimates that it can accommodate about 2,000 of its 6,700 undergraduates when it opens, and possibly more at a later point if the public health situation improves.

In a normal year, about 5,100 would live on campus, while others would be studying overseas or living in the Georgetown neighborhood. DeGioia said priority for housing would be given to freshmen, with other rooms set aside for students who meet certain criteria, including those with especially difficult home situations. In general, students won’t have roommates. That will help the school control the spread of potential outbreaks.

Skeptics — including many worried professors — say many universities are rushing too hastily to reopen campuses because they fear losing enrollment and, therefore, tuition revenue. DeGioia waved off that argument. “Economic considerations were not relevant for our determination as to whether to bring students back or not,” he said. “We’re doing it because we think it’s the right thing to do.”

Like other schools, Georgetown plans extensive efforts to test students for the virus. Those invited to campus will be sent a home-testing kit in coming weeks, DeGioia said. They will be tested again when they arrive in Washington, and again soon after. “And throughout the fall, we will test anyone who wants to be tested,” DeGioia said.

Georgetown also plans to ask students who live on campus to pledge to abide by public health rules. It will offer some classes in person, DeGioia said, but it will not require any professors to teach on campus who don’t feel comfortable doing so.

The emerging picture, from these schools and others, is of a tightly controlled and regimented experience for those students lucky enough to land a spot on campus. Many will be spending a great deal of time taking class from their rooms.

“For students who choose to live on campus in the fall, I’m increasingly thinking campus life will be a combination of a monastery and a minimum-security prison,” Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, wrote on Twitter.