Starting college in your parents’ basement

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated many trends that already existed, teaching us to stream more and forcing us to reconsider how much we need offices or stores. But as Center director Jeffrey Cole describes, one environment that has resisted evolutionary pressure, though, is college.

By Jeffrey Cole

This column focuses on how the coronavirus pandemic and the move to learning online has affected the lives of traditional college students under the age of 25 who live on or near campus. A later column will look at less traditional students who may be older, attending part-time or working full-time and may not live near campus.

It’s the middle of June: all across America families are celebrating high school and college graduations. This year it’s very different. Graduates of the class of 2020 will be forever remembered as the Covid Grads, finishing school during the pandemic.

In 2020, there were no proms, grad nights or graduation ceremonies. Some graduated on Zoom—celebrating virtually with their classmates—while others stood in the street in front of their homes while friends and families drove by honking from a safe distance.

Most college students living away, whether they were seniors or not, finished the last months of the school year by packing up their belongings and moving back in with Mom and Dad.

As bad as it was for those finishing the school year, it will be even worse for the high school grads starting their first year of college in the fall. Forget summer travel before starting college. Forget freshman orientation as they get introduced to their living arrangements on a new campus.

The only travel in their future will be to their parents’ basement, where they will not need an orientation. All of the experiences of moving to college, making friends and meeting roommates, regulating their own hours and behaviors, and sitting in a classroom soaking up knowledge may have to be deferred for a semester or more.

When I used to teach first year students, I’d tell them only 20% of what they will learn in college will be in the classroom. It probably wasn’t even that high. Even if they decide to defer college to wait for the full experience, what will they do with their year off? Travel, work, just about everything is out. More time at home is likely in their future.

Things are especially difficult for those who just graduated college. They are entering what may be the worst job market in America’s history. The kind of careers they were planning for after college will have to wait a year or more. When they finally enter the workplace, they will do so several steps behind previous grads. Many graduates of 2008-10 during the Great Recession are just now catching up to the salaries and positions they would have received without an economic calamity.

At least those starting college at home can sit out a horrendous job market for four more years.

There are a few good things happening. Many parents are delighted to have their adult college kids back at home. Families talk about how wonderful it is to have two or three meals a day together again as a family. In our Coronavirus Disruption Project, parents and children reported by a factor of almost seven to one that their relationships improved while sheltered in place. Forty-five percent said the constant togetherness made the relationship better while only seven percent saw it worsen.

But what about the learning?

Up to now, I have been describing the social aspects of not being away, meeting new friends, and learning how to be on your own. But what about formal education—the 20% I used to tell my students that they would learn in the classroom? How good is the learning process in front of a screen at home with the family?

The answer is not very good.

Of those learning online, almost two-thirds say they prefer the physical classroom experience. Almost as many (61%) feel isolated from the learning environment and that it is difficult to ask questions or get feedback (53%).

More than half of college students (54%) say they learn less online than in a physical classroom. When asked to compare learning online to the traditional methods, 66% prefer face-to-face.

These numbers are an extraordinary validation of the traditional college campus with professors teaching in front of students. That system has been under fire for many years because of the high costs of the top colleges (over $60,000 a year for tuition, not counting living expenses, books, and travel).

It also leads to colleges catering to those students whose families can best afford the rising costs of college.

A completely digital college experience could mean students learn only from the best professors on the planet. There would be no need for 2,000 professors teaching introduction to psychology: the course would be taught by a choice of two or three of the best psychology professors ever, perhaps even after they died.

A college experience would mean every course would be taught by a superb mind and teacher. And students all over the world could participate as easily as those who live near the campus. The cost of the full digital experience could cut 50% or more off the tuition.

Despite these efficiencies, we prefer the enormous inefficiency of coming together in person to share an environment and a learning experience. Universities have been doing a pretty good job of fulfilling their mission and delivering quality learning to their students (customers).

The complete digital experience might be particularly attractive to those students working full-time to support their education. Those students may not live in a dorm, may work part or full-time and have to withdraw for a semester or more to find funding.

It is not a surprise that the learning experience during the pandemic felt inferior to classroom teaching. The change came suddenly without preparation. The professors I know had two days to convert their courses (designed for the classroom) to online. They were in the middle of the semester and never planned (or wanted) to teach on the internet.

Many professors had never even heard of Zoom three days before they were teaching on it. Their efforts were heroic, and it is a triumph they carried it off rather than simply cancelling the rest of the term.

What happens in the fall?

In the middle of June, colleges—facing the uncertainty of whether the first wave of the pandemic is over and if there will be a second—have to decide what to do in the fall. Some are planning (subject to change) to hold classes on campus starting in August (including USC). Others, not wanting to start and then possibly move online in the middle again, feel it’s safer to stay online through at least the end of the calendar year (including the California State Universities).

Uppermost in the thinking of colleges is the health of students, faculty, and staff. There are also enormous financial implications. Many students do not want to pay $60,000 a year for online learning they judge to be inferior. They want reduced tuition (even though the colleges’ costs stay almost exactly the same). Some are filing lawsuits claiming an unfair “bait and switch.” The charge is true, but colleges are hardly culpable. If significant numbers decide to defer and sit out for a year or more, colleges will lose massive amounts of revenue.


A completely digital college experience could mean students learn only from the best professors on the planet. And students all over the world could participate as easily as those who live near the campus. The cost of the full digital experience could cut 50% or more off the tuition.  Despite these efficiencies, we prefer the enormous inefficiency of coming together in person to share an environment and a learning experience.


How these issues are resolved will determine the future of college education for a generation or more.

Almost all college students want to get back to campus and learn in the same physical environment as their teachers and friends. They want the old way back.

I am particularly intrigued at Purdue University’s plan for the fall.

Purdue will hold regular classes starting in August on their Indiana campus (subject to a virulent second wave). After Thanksgiving, the campus will shut down and students will not come back until the start of the new semester in January. Purdue is concerned about thousands of students spreading out all over the world and coming back to campus with new cases of the virus. The fall term will still end in December, but the post-Thanksgiving part will be held online.

This is really very clever. It avoids the costs and contagion risks of all that travel to and from the campus in cold weather. The last two weeks of the term are usually spent studying, writing papers, and preparing for finals. That time is well spent at home, where they can fully concentrate on the end of the term.

One of the ways we may see online learning integrated long-term into college is that every term may eventually end earlier with the students heading home to write their papers and study online.

Higher education has been disrupted by the pandemic. Unlike work, where some of us may never fully return to the office, learning will revert to the pre-pandemic days. But as courses become designed for online and are taught by digital natives, it seems clear that college campus learning will ultimately integrate, as almost everything else in our lives, with the internet.



Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.



See all columns from the center.

June 17, 2020