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Last week, two of America’s leading liberal arts colleges, Bowdoin and Middlebury, announced their fall reopening plans. It’s hard to imagine how, faced with the same facts, they could have come to such different conclusions about how to best educate their students and care for their communities. And it’s impossible not to wonder how these hard-to-reconcile positions may influence peer institutions, including Williams and Amherst, that as of this writing have yet to announce their own plans for the semester, especially with a new rise in COVID-19 cases nationally.

Bowdoin College president Clayton Rose announced last week that the 1,800-student Maine school would open its campus in September only to a small number of students: incoming first-years and transfers, students who would find it nearly impossible to participate in online learning at home, and a small number of senior honors students whose projects require the use of campus resources. That’s it. With the exception of first-year writing seminars, all classes will be online. The college has canceled fall sports and virtually all extracurricular activities. Tuition for the online fall semester at Bowdoin will be $27,911 -- unchanged from last year.

Most years, Bowdoin enrolls about 500 first-year students and a handful of transfers. A Bowdoin administrator told me that 120 to 150 students with challenging home environments may seek to return. The number of senior honors students allowed back most likely will be fewer than 50.

It’s not clear how many new students and their families will accept this scenario as a satisfying first-year experience at a liberal arts college whose appeal and value centers on the delivery of an intimate academic, residential and social experience. But with gap-year requests expected to be up, it’s not out of the question that Bowdoin could be home to fewer than 600 socially distancing students this fall, including RAs and other residential life student staff.

Later that day, just two states over and 160 miles to the west, Middlebury College president Laurie Patton announced the Vermont school’s reopening plan. In sharp contrast to Bowdoin, Middlebury invited all of its undergraduates -- close to 2,750 in all -- to return in September, promising a mix of in-person and remote classes, as well as a significant number of hybrid courses. The college’s faculty members, who engaged in a searing debate over the question a week earlier before voting in favor of a reopening, will each be able to choose how they teach. A Middlebury administrator told me that students strongly supported having an in-person experience when recently surveyed on their preference. There is no word on the status of athletics or other extracurricular activities. Tuition for the 2020-21 fall semester at Middlebury will be $28,940 -- up 3.75 percent from last year.

When they arrive on campus, Middlebury students will be tested immediately and quarantined in their rooms until the results are in, and then tested again a week later. One person can accompany the student to the campus on move-in day, but they will not be permitted to enter the residence hall; students will need to carry all their belongings into the dorm and to their room. There was no word on whether the usual welcoming squads of student volunteers will be there to lend a hand. Middlebury earlier explored the possibility of putting all students in single rooms, but that proved infeasible. Reduced density will be achieved primarily be turning triples into doubles, and some small doubles into singles. Space will be set aside to quarantine students who test positive for COVID-19 or who contract other illnesses.

Until told otherwise, students will have to follow a “campus quarantine” protocol and not go into town. Students living off campus (usually about 100 at Middlebury) will be asked to quarantine in their homes when not on campus. It’s unclear how they can buy food and other provisions at the local grocery stores while sticking to the quarantine order.

As with Bowdoin, it remains uncertain how many Middlebury students -- both new and returning -- will opt for the experience described. Middlebury students have until July 6 to advise if they plan not to return in September. Bowdoin said that any new first-year students who defer will be able to enroll later, but it can’t guarantee when, if the number of opt-outs is so large that it would create an enrollment bubble next fall.

Both institutions said in their announcements that health and safety considerations factored heavily in their decisions, though Middlebury acknowledged that its plan balanced that requirement with the desire to “uphold educational opportunity.” At Bowdoin, Rose clearly took a more cautious approach, noting that while physical distancing, the wearing of masks, following hygiene recommendations, and self-monitoring for symptoms have “had a powerful effect on reducing the spread of the disease … the implementation of these safety protocols is new for us, as it is for every college and university and the country as a whole.”

A Different Risk-Acceptance Calculus

It’s difficult to say which strategy -- Bowdoin’s desolate campus or Middlebury’s crowded but highly regulated one -- will be less appealing to 18- to 22-year-old students, or to their parents, some of whom surely will question the value of the academic experience being offered. And then there’s what inevitably will be a lesser experience for first-year students. Even before the plans for the semester were announced, both colleges anticipated an increase in requests for gap years and stop outs. Now, seeing the reality of what lies ahead, the appeal of a gap year or year off probably has never been greater, though it must be acknowledged that those opportunities are not equally available to all. Then again, neither is the opportunity to engage in remote learning in a secure, supportive space with the privacy needed to minimize distractions. As always, those with less advantage face the greatest hurdles.

Despite their many commonalities, Bowdoin and Middlebury clearly came out with different answers on their risk-acceptance calculus. Bowdoin, whose campus is slightly more integrated into the town, took the more cautious route. In the event of a COVID-19 spike this fall, there will be less disruption, fewer room and board reimbursements, and no reprise of this spring’s sudden midsemester switch to online classes. The vast majority of classes will go on as designed.

For its part, Middlebury is rolling the dice with a move that some people will see as more confident. However, a national or regional COVID spike or local outbreak may force a large exodus of students and disrupt another academic semester. It also will strain relations with the faculty, given the significant minority who opposed a full reopening.

Both institutions, like all others, have noted that the pandemic will have a steep financial cost; no amount of cost-cutting can compensate for the anticipated drop in revenues. But Bowdoin can better afford to take the financial hit of a partial opening. Its endowment is significantly larger than Middlebury’s, and it has been running surpluses year after year, which has built its nonendowment reserves. Middlebury is under greater financial stress following several years of deficits, though its endowment remains strong. There is no way to know how much each college’s financial position factored into its respective decisions.

If the fall is an uneventful one with no major COVID clusters, few will blame those institutions, including Bowdoin, that played it safe and kept most students away. But if it goes the other way, those large number of colleges and universities that bring back the majority of students, even with the best of intentions and with all the health and safety precautions possible, will be pressed to explain their decisions. In my experience, the reputational damage of a decision later seen as irresponsible is much stickier than that originating from an act of overcautiousness.

I hope that the optimists prove to be right, that their determination is recognized and that they never have to face those consequences.

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