(CNN) — Talia Oleshansky was hoping to spend her junior year at Indiana University in the sorority house for Alpha Epsilon Phi, as she did her sophomore year.
Instead, she will be moving into a hotel — a result of Indiana University's reduction in on-campus housing availability.
Fewer students at IU and at universities around the United States will be allowed to stay in either dorms or fraternity and sorority houses in an effort to maintain social distancing protocols.
Some students, including those who are immunocompromised or who live internationally, are simply opting to complete the academic year remotely.
Yet many are like Oleshansky: Eager to still get some part of the college experience this year, even if it's through socially distanced social events and modified extracurriculars only.
Nearly all of the tenets of the traditional college experience — packed lectures, campus parties, even cafeteria-style meals in crowded dining halls — aren't in the college cards this year as the coronavirus pandemic drags on.
As universities grapple with how to open safely and maintain a semblance of normalcy in an unprecedented year, they are reducing class sizes and tapping teaching assistants to run small sections.
Some are moving all coursework online. Dining and extracurriculars will take place outdoors as long as weather permits.
Temperature checks and sanitizing stations will be de rigeur at building entrances such as libraries and campus stores. Many campuses have designated one-way walking on their leafy quads to limit crowds, and campus buildings such as libraries and student centers will have strict rules around occupancy.
Students move in for the fall 2020 semester during the Covid-19 epidemic at IU Bloomington even though most classes will be held virtually.
Eric Rudd/Indiana University
But one of the trickiest and most treacherous aspects of college life is the traditional college dormitory, where students often share bathrooms and living spaces and can live with as many as four to a room.
Most college freshmen live in double or triple rooms; sharing spaces that are often 8 feet by 12 feet. In the midst of a pandemic, many universities are realizing those quarters are far too close for comfort.
They've found an ally in the hotel industry, which has seen its revenue slashed in half because of the pandemic. Occupancy rates are now climbing back up after cratering out to record lows earlier this year, but in June, hotels were still only booking, on average, 42% of their rooms.
Living in a hotel
Oleshansky's housing selection is proving to be a surprisingly popular option in college towns across the United States this fall.
"It's definitely funny telling people I'll be living in a hotel," said Oleshansky, 20, who will be sharing a deluxe queen room with one of her sorority sisters at the Graduate Bloomington, a four-star hotel adjacent to IU Bloomington's iconic Sample Gates. A handful of other friends from the sorority are taking rooms on the same floor.
Talia Oleshansky, center, with her sorority sisters, from left, Abby Greenblatt, Lindsay Rubin, Abby Pasmowitz and Madison Klein, is starting junior year at Indiana University living in a hotel instead of a dorm.
Courtesy Talia Oleshansky
"We weighed the pros and cons and decided it was a unique opportunity, it would be fun, and with all our friends on campus, we won't be left out," she said. "We're doing classes online, so my friends and I are all going to have to try and find our own space to do that at the hotel. We're trying to get back to normal, even though it's a little bit scary," she said.
Oleshansky has reserved her room for 90 days — the longest reservation time available — at a rate of $98 per night. That will hold her over until Thanksgiving break, which this year marks the end of the fall semester.
The rate includes housekeeping once a week, but parking, at $5/night, is additional.
She is still holding onto hope that she will be able to study abroad in Australia during the spring semester, as previously planned.
If that's not possible, she says she plans to return to the hotel.
In an ordinary year, her housing costs would break down to more than $11,000 for a 16-week college semester, about the same cost IU's highest tier of dormitory housing (lower-frills rooms are available for as low as $5,580 per semester).
But for Oleshansky, who grew up in Birmingham, Michigan, the higher cost is worth it if it can help salvage any part of her college experience. Home since March, Oleshansky said she is eager to get back to the feeling of freedom on campus.
Hotel room turned dorm room
At some universities, campus housing offices have struck deals with hotels and booked blocks of rooms or even full floors, allowing students to live in hotel rooms for the same cost as a traditional dormitory room.
Hotel at the University of Maryland is running a special "semester extended stay" program, advertised in a pop-up on their homepage and allowing for a discounted rate of either $69 or $89 per night (depending on room) for stays of 60 days or longer.
Courtesy University of Maryland
In Boston, a number of universities have contracted with hotels across the city to house students, including:
-- The Westin Copley Place, a four-star hotel near Copley Square that will house students from Northeastern University. In Syracuse, New York, a chunk of rooms at the Crowne Plaza Syracuse are being converted for students from Syracuse University who don't want to bunk with a roommate; the cost is $4,125 per semester or $1,425 for a month-to-month option (traditional on-campus rooms range from $3,300 to $6,000 per semester). The Marriott Syracuse will also be housing students.
At Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, triple-occupancy dorm rooms are no longer allowed, and the school announced it plans to make up some of the lost housing by utilizing hotel rooms around downtown Saratoga Springs.
"This is a new thing for us, but it's not so different than other long-term stays that we've planned for," said Jeff Brainard, VP of sales and marketing at Southern Management Corporation, which manages the four-star Hotel at the University of Maryland.
That hotel, which offers a rooftop terrace and indoor pool, is running a special "semester extended stay" program, advertised in a pop-up on their homepage and allowing for a discounted rate of either $69 or $89 per night (depending on room) for stays of 60 days or longer.
The four-star Hotel at the University of Maryland has no plans to shift its business model or try to mimic the on-campus housing experience even as it welcomes college students.
Courtesy University of Maryland
The reservation is fully flexible, meaning students who arrive on campus and then find they have to leave, either because of coronavirus exposure or a campuswide shutdown, will have all remaining days reimbursed.
The hotel has no plans to shift its business model or try to mimic the on-campus housing experience, however. What students are paying for, Brainard says, is a long-term room in a hotel.
"We want to be a four-diamond housing experience for these students. We're not turning floors into dorms. It's still a very high-end hotel," Brainard said.
The Hotel at the University of Maryland has no formal relationship with the university, but after participating in an off-campus housing fair sponsored by the university earlier this year, the property saw interest in long-term stays skyrocket.
As of now, Brainard said, about 30 students have booked rooms for the fall 2020 semester, but he has fielded significantly more calls from both students and parents. He expects the number to increase in early September as the Univerisity of Maryland recently pushed its start date for in-person classes back to September 14.
The Graduate Hotels chain has 23 properties in college towns across the United States and is used to catering to student's visiting families, and many of their rooms are designed with school spirit in mind.
John Stoffer/Graduate Knoxville
The Graduate Hotels chain might have a leg up on channeling a bit of the college experience to its new guests. The company, which has 26 properties in college towns across the United States, is used to catering to student's visiting families, and many of their rooms are designed with school spirit in mind.
This year, they have contracted with a handful of universities and will be accommodating students at more than half of their hotels this semester, via a mix of direct bookings such as Oleshansky's and through partnerships with universities including The University of Cincinnati and the University of North Carolina.
'We're not RA's'
In cases where universities have contracted directly with hotels, students can expect some of the amenities that come with campus housing, including an on-site residential adviser and additional security. But in the many direct bookings that are cropping up across the country, the students living in the hotels will be expected to behave just like any other guest.
"We're not RA's, and we're not parents," said Brainard. "You're at a nice hotel, and you should act like it's a nice hotel."
In Chapel Hill, where several coronavirus clusters broke out during the first week of classes, prompting the school to shut down in-person learning, Graduate Hotels reported a flurry of new bookings this week and said they expect their current number of college bookings, 24, to increase tenfold.
Graduate Hotels Chapel Hill reported a flurry of new bookings this week and said they expect their current number of college bookings, 24, to increase tenfold.
John Stoffer/Graduate Chapel Hill
"The problems that universities are trying to solve are unbelievably complex," said David Rochefort, Graduate Hotels's president.
It's a situation that has been a windfall for cash-strapped small hotels, and Rochefort says that in addition to filing rooms that might otherwise sit vacant, it's also allowed him to hire back a number of furloughed employees.
"The first win is we get to support our university partners, and it also allows us to create a more normalized revenue stream to weather the storm we're in," he said.
"And if you want to think about long-term impact, you can potentially convert these parents and students into lifelong customers. So there's a third win. We're building a lot of brand loyalty."