As the fall semester begins, many college students will be attending classes from the relative safety of their family homes. Others have arrived to live on university campuses, with varying amounts of success; even schools that enforce strict social distancing guidelines are seeing outbreaks of the coronavirus.
But some students are pursuing a third option: Renting giant houses with friends — sometimes in far-flung locales — and doing school remotely, together. Call it the rise of the college “collab house.”
Two groups of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, have rented large houses in Hawaii for the fall semester. Six rising seniors at Columbia University will be living in a house in Portland, Ore. Several rising seniors at Harvard are renting property in Montana. There are at least seven large houses that have been rented in the greater Salt Lake City area alone, filled with students from different colleges.
These houses range in scale from lavish and pricey productions to smart, budget-friendly solutions for first generation, low-income students.
“The reason people my age are really gravitating toward doing this is we all want new experiences, but that’s been hard to come by,” said Erik Boesen, 19, a rising sophomore at Yale who is living in a house in Durango, Colo., with other Yale students.
His reasons for pursuing this off-campus housing alternative are shared by many students living off-campus this semester: They’re looking to escape their families and replicate at least part of the college experience.
“Everyone has been cooped up in their houses,” he said. “We’re all looking to do something that’s a little unique.”
Building the Dream Home
Living and working together with a group of friends in a massive house is a dream for many young people. It’s an aspiration they see modeled by YouTube stars and influencers, who have formed collaborative living arrangements all across Los Angeles. Moving into an off campus house in college is also a milestone for many young people and a way to assert their independence.
When Yoni Altman-Shafer, 20, a rising sophomore at George Washington University, found out in July that all of his classes would be online in the fall, he felt trapped. The prospect of being cooped up in a tiny dorm in the middle of Washington, D.C., didn’t sound appealing, nor did spending another year stuck at home with his parents in Milwaukee.
“Most college students don’t want to be home anymore,” he said.
So, Mr. Altman-Shafer and five friends of his quickly devised a new plan: They’d rent a big house somewhere “adventurous, beautiful, warm and, most importantly, cheap.” The group put together a detailed PowerPoint presentation to convince their parents, which addressed all major concerns they could foresee — such as how they planned to eat, adhere to safety precautions, get schoolwork done and observe Jewish holidays.
“Your student could truly have it all this semester,” the presentation read, “by joining her friends to live in a fully furnished home out west and taking classes remotely. Beautiful scenery, wide open spaces, all from the comfort of a safe and lovely house with Wi-Fi and equipped with all the amenities we would need.”
It worked. Mr. Altman-Shafer and his friends will be living in an Airbnb rental home in Colorado this fall.
Mr. Altman-Shafer’s house remains unbranded, but other groups of students have named their college houses and made them social media official, creating shared accounts where they plan to post about their lives together.
Dhwani Kharel, 20, and seven other rising juniors at Dartmouth have rented a house on Cape Cod which they’ve deemed the Darty House. (“Darty,” while sometimes used as a term for “day party,” is short for Dartmouth in this context.) They plan to post videos to TikTok of themselves studying, hosting cook-offs, and hanging out with each other.
“We are not planning to be like the Sway House, we will be very respectful to our neighbors,” said Ms. Kharel, referencing a badly behaved group of influencers in Los Angeles.
From the Beach to the City to the Country
The majority of students renting collab houses said they found the listings through Airbnb, where many owners are offering deep discounts for long-term stays.
Utah is a surprising hotbed of college collab houses. Students flocking to the region are hoping to take advantage of the many outdoor activities the area has to offer. “There’s eight in my house and six near us, and a group of nine near us too,” said Lucas Igel, a rising junior at M.I.T. who is living in a house of seven in Park City, referring to the number of college kids staying nearby. “We recently found out there’s also going to be a group of 12 freshmen living across the street.”
Well-off students have pursued expensive rentals in premier vacation locales including Lake Tahoe, Calif., and Aspen, Colo. But for other students, college collab houses are a way to save money. “Costs have been a major factor in our decision because some of us are on financial aid,” said Phillip Pyle, 20, a rising junior at Williams College who is planning to rent a house with six friends in Maine or Massachusetts.
Hanah Jun, 19, a rising sophomore at Yale who is from Queens, just finalized plans to move to Barbados in the fall with three friends. She said that her family’s financial instability and lack of reliable Wi-Fi have made completing her studies from home nearly impossible. “I’m on full financial aid,” Ms. Jun said. “In terms of financial privilege, there’s a lot of students from alternative backgrounds looking to do this.”
Morgan Margulies, 20, is a rising junior at Columbia University who will be doing his online classes this year from a house in Santa Cruz, Calif., with nine friends from other colleges, including state schools. “I am a first generation, low-income student and this is my cheapest option,” he said. “For a lot of people at Columbia, money is not an issue. They’re moving into places and they invited me and told me the rent, but it was not a realistic thing I could do.”
Some students are using the remote year to indulge cottagecore-like fantasies, renting out farmhouses or living on an orchard. Others, who normally attend more suburban schools, are moving to places like New York City and Chicago to get a taste of city life. Annie Rauwerda, 20, a rising junior at the University of Michigan, will be completing her studies remotely this fall from Brooklyn. Warren Deng, 21, a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, is moving to Las Vegas with a group of classmates.
And then there are the students taking their collab houses on the road, renting R.V.s or hopping from house to house. “We didn’t want to stay home for another four or five months, so we came up with a plan to go around the country to different places and stay in Airbnbs and do remote learning and classes from those places,” said Pallav Chaturvedi, 19, a sophomore at U.C. Berkeley who will be traveling with five other students. “We’re going to be staying in Olympia, Wash., then Newport, Ore., a coastal town. Then we might go to Boise, Idaho. It’s still coming out to be cheaper than our lease given how expensive Berkeley leases are.”
College towns of other colleges are also a destination. Myrha Qadir, 21, and four other Princeton students rented a large house in Chapel Hill, N.C., for the fall. They briefly considered somewhere more scenic like by the beach or mountains, she said, but landed on Chapel Hill partly because they wanted to be in a college town, even if it wasn’t their own. “It’s a five-bedroom house, right on Chapel Hill’s campus,” said Ms. Qadir. “So we’ll get a college feel. We’ll be around the college scene but it won’t be our school.”
Or what’s left of the college scene. On Aug. 17, a week after classes had started at the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus, 177 students had tested positive for the coronavirus and the school was forced to shift to remote classes. By the end of last week, there were over 1,500 cases among students there.
“We feel a lot better now that they’ve sent everyone back home,” said Ms. Qadir.
More than 30 students from China who attend American universities plan to create a college collab courtyard in Beijing. Wendi Yan, 21, a rising sophomore at Princeton, is organizing the group. The students, from colleges including University of Pennsylvania, U.C. San Diego, Brown, Duke, Stanford and Middlebury, are planning to live in several apartments that face each other so they can somewhat recreate the American college experience remotely and study and socialize together.
“It feels like China and the U.S. are trying to split people apart, but because I’ll have these people, I think it will help tremendously,” Ms. Yan said.
The students can also bond over the shared academic challenges that come with living in a different time zone, and without the ability to Google freely or conduct research with ease. “With the websites China bans, I always find them out by surprise when I try to use something and I can’t,” Ms. Yan said.
Safety First: Google Docs and Roommate Contracts
Members of every college collab house that spoke to The New York Times said they planned to adhere to a strict two-week quarantine after moving into their rentals. Still, as the coronavirus has spread through small towns and rural regions, some communities have encouraged would-be visitors to stay away. And campus dorms and sorority and fraternity houses have been clusters of many coronavirus outbreaks, with more than 26,000 people infected in the United States at colleges and universities alone.
Several college collab houses have created detailed spreadsheets outlining plans for what happens if residents fall ill. Others specifically chose destinations that were close to large cities or major hospitals.
“We have the largest Google doc,” said Merel Timmermans, 20, a rising junior at Grinnell College, who is renting a house in Utah with other Grinnell students. “There’s a Covid safety plan, all of our meals, a roommate contract, a ‘how things work’ guide, information on how we’re going to do chores, cook meals, and we have summaries of all the house meetings we’ve had over Zoom. We made a house Spotify playlist. We’re all filling out medical forms so we have them in case of emergency.”
The house members have plans to recreate a mini campus at home by naming different living spaces after buildings at the school. “We’ve decided the kitchen will be our version of The Husk, a humanities building, then the downstairs room will be more like the library for quiet studying,” Ms. Timmermans said. “A lot of us are athletes, so we’re planning part of the garage as a workout space and bringing gym equipment.”
The Summer Camp as Dorm
For students who desire a little more structure but still want to escape their parents’ homes, Ciarán Willis, 28, a former camp counselor and National Outdoor Leadership School instructor, has founded A Place Beyond. The four-month-old start-up aims to provide an “in-person learning community” for students attending school remotely. The company is renting several summer camps and will be welcoming small groups of students (starting at $9,900 per person for three months on an Arizona campus in the Prescott National Forest), as well as instructors who can offer college kids extra support and guidance.
“This is a little bit of a middle of the road option,” said Mr. Willis. “Online communities can do a lot of really great things but there’s some aspect of community that’s about proximity and that’s what we want to provide people.”
Because groups of students will be living together, Mr. Willis said keeping everyone healthy will be their utmost priority. They plan to have students quarantine upon arrival, wear masks and test weekly. “We are working with health authorities to facilitate tests or contract with private testing providers,” he said.
Most students in college collab houses have signed rental agreements that extend only until the end of the fall semester. No one knows what life will look like by the spring, let alone what class will look like. “I don’t think people are going to suddenly realize they like online learning better, but already there’s been a reckoning over how much college is really worth,” said Mr. Boesen.
Daniel Campbell, 21, a rising senior at University of Ottawa who will be living with three friends in Ireland this fall, said that it’s been difficult to plan. “We are mere pawns in this huge game of academia,” he said. “We have little to no say over what is going to happen.”
Anika Beamer, 19, a rising junior at Grinnell, said that orchestrating her collab home in Utah has given her hope that this school year won’t be a total disappointment. “We still tell ourselves this plan is crazy, but what isn’t crazy right now?” she said. “Our lives have been uprooted and we’re hoping to find a sliver of comfort and adventure.”