As the coronavirus pandemic continues to temporarily — or perhaps permanently — alter the college experience, two Princeton graduates have come up with a new idea: instead of students taking online courses from their bedrooms and couches, they’ll take them from a luxe “bubble” hotel full of other students in the same boat.
It’s called The U Experience; come fall, it may be hosting 150 students at hotels in Arkansas and Hawaii — and it’s currently accepting applications.
The idea began, according to 24-year-old cofounder Lane Russell, when Harvard said it would shift to remote learning for the fall, but would continue to charge full tuition.
“It really made us think about, ‘What is the thing that college is offering, and what are students getting out of it?” Russell said. “And we think that, even if a college is announcing something that indicates that the experience is actually worth $0, a lot of students probably do value it much higher than that.”
And in the social and extracurricular void that colleges shifting to remote learning leave behind, “disruption and unbundling is called for,” according to 27-year-old cofounder Adam Bragg.
“Something like this could have never been done before — mainly because the separation of a college experience from colleges was never possible. They held the college experience for ransom, and now that they’ve shifted to online learning, there is an opportunity to do something like this,” Bragg said. He added that, pre-pandemic, a complete buyout “wasn’t necessarily an interesting thing for a lot of the hotels, or at least they didn’t know they had the interest for this thing. And so on both sides, the levels of coordination are a lot higher than was ever possible before.”
Neither has a background in higher education, hospitality, or event-planning. Bragg said that the duo “did go through Princeton together, and we were able to have an understanding of the college experience firsthand, and we understand the value of it.”
They said that as of four weeks ago, both have left their jobs to work on The U Experience full-time. Russell said they’re funding the venture with personal savings — although he declined to share an exact figure.
“If we risk a couple of months and have to get back on our feet after this, that’ll be a small price to pay for having gotten the idea out there and maybe helping people,” Russell said.
Bragg said that they have partnered with people in the hospitality industry and media industry — which their website identifies as Hotel Connections and Happi House Collective, respectively.
While Russell and Bragg would not say how many applications they’ve received, they said they have enough to fill a class, but need more to get the project off the ground.
“We really do want to take the time to go through these applications carefully and make sure that students are properly vetted, that they’re all going to have a good time, and be safe and healthy here,” Russell said.
The group’s handbook says that all students must take a COVID test after they’re admitted to the program; Russell said they plan on coordinating with the students and local testing sites, or plan on “finding a way to get them to a testing site.” Students will be asked to self-quarantine between the test and their arrival on campus. Russell said, “obviously, that puts a little bit of trust in these kids.”
He pointed to Hawaii’s mandatory 14-day self quarantine policy, and said that students wouldn’t be exposed to each other immediately. He also said that, because they’re buying out entire hotels, they can devote extra rooms and quarters to quarantining.
Here’s what The U Experience campuses — if they do open in the fall — will look like.
All students will have single rooms, and the ones on the Hawaii campus will have their own bathrooms.
While food and drinks weren’t originally going to be a part of the bundle, Russell said they will now be offering meal plans; they’re also hoping to make arrangements with local grocery stores to deliver to the hotels.
Bragg and Russell said they may have program administrators living on-site to try and minimize the “inflow” and “outflow” of the bubble. However, hotel staff will likely come from local communities; Russell said “we don’t plan to have them actually capable of interacting directly with the students.”
Russell said they’re trying to price their bundles “within the range of or almost exactly” full room and board.
The Arkansas campus has a $12,000 “base rate.”
And the Hawaii campus has a $15,000 base.
“Most dorm buildings don’t have a gym in them. Most dorm buildings don’t have the bar inside. And most dorm buildings don’t have a pool,” Russell said. “And so really we see this as something that, because colleges charge so much for room and board, we can offer much, much more than they’re offering at about the same price.”
Russell said that they hope to offer scholarships, and have set up a donation portal on their website, but haven’t gotten any “major interest” in it yet.
Russell said interest has mostly been coming from students in denser urban areas, especially in places like California and New York “that have broadly based protocols in place.”
“We very much believe in this idea,” Bragg said. “We believe that this is something that, that students would very much enjoy and that the public as a whole needs.”