Covid prompts vacation resort concept for online studying

Creators suggest long-term value, but critics see failure to understand campus communities

December 18, 2020
Person sunbathing in a bikini with her laptop
Source: Getty

The creators of a holiday resort for US college students studying online during their Covid lockdowns are promising to expand the concept into a fundamental reimagining of the residential campus experience.

The idea by three Princeton University graduates – long-term luxury hotel rentals for students taking remote classes – already has been blocked in multiple US states over its virus-spreading potential.

Rather than relent, the creators of The U Experience said they have 150 students coming to a Texas vacation resort in January and have 2,000 more expressing interest in future opportunities.

The idea has value well beyond the pandemic, said Lane Russell, one of the co-founders of The U Experience, because it will let students get a residential campus-style experience while paying fees at online rates.

“The idea is to give students a way to actually design the community that they’re part of,” Mr Russell said.

“What we’re looking for in resorts is spaces that are conducive to community building,” said another co-founder, Adam Bragg.

As with the original idea of giving hundreds of online students a shared residence in a deadly pandemic, the notion of permanently replacing college campuses with beaches, sunset cruises and poolside bars has generated scepticism among academic experts.

“From an education perspective, I think the concept is just awful,” said Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

“It really takes a very narrow view of what the residential college experience is,” said Ross Rubenstein, a professor of educational and community policy at Georgia State University.

In looking to move beyond the moment of pandemic-driven isolation, The U Experience team contended that widespread student dissatisfaction with online teaching this year reflected the loss of campus socialisation far more than any great desire for in-person teaching.

“The thing that students don’t like about online learning is that they are socially isolated,” Mr Russell said.

And despite the widespread refusal of US colleges to lower fees during the pandemic, Mr Russell and Mr Bragg predicted that institutions would increasingly offer their online courses at rates cheaper than their in-person versions.

With that expectation, Mr Russell said, a residential college education as imagined by The U Experience would cost students less overall, given his understanding that the $11,000 (£8,255) per semester bill for room and board at a resort hotel is close to what some colleges charge. Factoring in lower online fees, he argued, “the cost savings are pretty massive”.

Higher education experts, however, dismissed the company’s claims about the low value that students placed on in-person teaching and genuine campus experiences.

The realities, experts said, are that few colleges offer significant discounts on their online classes, that integrated residential experiences represent essential and formative elements of undergraduate experiences and that vacation resorts seem unlikely to attract many customers beyond wealthy and unfocused students. College Board data also show that US colleges charge an average of about $6,000 per semester for room and board, about half The U Experience’s advertised price.

Hundreds of studies have made clear the value to students of an environment in which classroom learning and wider campus experiences are designed to complement each other, said Gregory Wolniak, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Georgia.

“Evidence shows that the more students are engaged inside and outside of class,” he said, “the more likely they are to persist and complete their degree, and to make greater gains across numerous learning outcomes.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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