But 20 minutes up the freeway at the University of California, San Diego, things could look very different, with tens of thousands of students streaming back to campus, if only to single dorm rooms and socially distanced classrooms.
Across the country this fall, college life is likely to be vastly different from campus to campus — a patchwork that mirrors what is currently happening in states and communities, as some move toward widespread reopening and others keep their economies mostly closed.
Shut down in a stricken wave this March as the coronavirus pandemic spread across America, colleges and universities are now studying whether and how to move forward, with plans ranging wildly between hope and grim epidemiology.
At U.C. San Diego, hope rests on a pilot project for mass testing of students during the summer session. If new coronavirus cases can be quickly isolated and traced, the reasoning goes, many of the university’s 40,000 students can return in the fall.
“This is completely uncharted territory, and there is no clear indication of what is the right answer,” said the school’s chancellor, Pradeep Khosla. “Universities have all sorts of models. Some will come back in person, some remote, some only hybrid. People are making choices based on their situations and on what makes them comfortable.”
Like the rest of the country, colleges face formidable risks, both human and economic. Students and faculty members must be kept safe and healthy, but so must a segment of the economy that employs nearly four million people and operates as the nation’s predominant social mobility engine.
Even before the pandemic, college enrollment was on the decline nationwide as soaring tuition and student debt raised questions about the worth of a college education. Now many colleges are in critical condition, as the coronavirus has stalled the economy, gutted state budgets, cratered endowments and made heading off to college seem less an adventure than a threat.
Cal State, the nation’s largest four-year public university system, this week became the first large institution in the country to tell students their classes would take place almost exclusively online this fall, with some possible exceptions for clinical classes in the nursing program or certain science labs.
But the choice for those schools is arguably less complex than at the large research universities that make up the University of California system.
Most of the nearly 500,000 Cal State students are undergraduates whose coursework includes large lecture classes that are more adaptable to remote learning. At many Cal States, as they are known, 80 percent or more of the students live off-campus.
Testing all of those students regularly, as Mr. Khosla hopes to do at U.C. San Diego, would be cost prohibitive — about $25 million a week, Timothy P. White, the system’s chancellor, told the Cal State board of trustees on Tuesday.
Not that it will be cheap at U.C. San Diego. Mr. Khosla said it would cost about $500,000 to test about 5,000 mostly graduate students once a month during the summer pilot program. But it could cost “north of $2 million a month” for the whole campus starting in the fall.
“It’s an expensive experiment, there’s no doubt about it,” Mr. Khosla said. But the school’s willingness to try shows how important it is for universities to offer students an on-campus experience, which generates a significant portion of an institution’s revenue through everything from room and board to dining hall charges.
Higher education experts said the decision on whether to hold in-person classes in the fall would most likely depend on a number of factors, including the type of institution, location, size of the student body and funding.
“States are in different circumstances in terms of the proliferation of the virus, and also the funding they receive,” said Lynn Pasquerella, the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Small, cash-rich colleges may be better able to afford to go back, with masks, social distancing and extra sanitation. And schools in rural areas without major outbreaks may consider themselves less at risk.
Institutions with aging faculty members and more students who already live off-campus or take more online courses could opt for a longer stretch of remote learning.
“I think we are going to see a lot of variation,” said Laura W. Perna, a professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
Still, the pressure on many institutions to open will be great, if for potentially different reasons.
At community colleges, for example, many students also rely on campus resources for access to the internet, food and child care. “Students are now in parking lots in order to get remote access to their classes online,” Dr. Pasquerella said.
At the same time, she said, private liberal arts colleges will want to bring students back because the cost of tuition is often premised on the added value of a rigorous, close-knit campus environment.
Without revenue from sporting events, bookstores, summer camps and campus parking, even large, powerhouse universities may find themselves hurting for cash. Penn State, for example, has projected losses of at least $260 million over the next 14 months because of the coronavirus. The university has said it hopes to resume in-person classes by autumn.
The University of Washington was one of the first large schools to make the shift entirely to online classes after the Seattle area emerged as an early center of the outbreak. Now, it is developing plans to allow at least some in-person instruction, said a spokesman, Victor Balta.
In a state where the move toward reopening has happened more quickly than in many others, the University of Georgia has announced plans for in-person classes. But Harvard Medical School said Wednesday that its first-year students would start remotely in the fall.
In California, which was among the earliest states to shut down, Mr. Khosla said that if any campus could responsibly open, it would be U.C. San Diego. The campus has two teaching hospitals and some of the nation’s leading experts in epidemiology and infectious disease.
And, he said, there are opportunities in crisis.
“This is a research institution,” Mr. Khosla said. “What we learn could teach us a lot about how to manage pandemics like this.”
Sarah Mervosh contributed reporting from Canton, Ohio, and Mike Baker from Seattle.