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2 Princeton grads buy hotels in Hawaii and Arkansas, and are betting on college students paying them $15,000 to study in a 'bubble'

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AS the coronavirus pandemic continues to temporarily — or perhaps permanently — alter the college experience, two Princeton graduates have come up with a new idea: instead of students taking online courses from their bedrooms and couches, they'll take them from a luxe "bubble" hotel full of other students in the same boat.

It's called The U Experience; come fall, it may be hosting 150 students at hotels in Arkansas and Hawaii — and it's currently accepting applications.

The idea began, according to 24-year-old cofounder Lane Russell, when Harvard said it would shift to remote learning for the fall, but would continue to charge full tuition.

"It really made us think about, 'What is the thing that college is offering, and what are students getting out of it?" Russell said. "And we think that, even if a college is announcing something that indicates that the experience is actually worth $0, a lot of students probably do value it much higher than that."

And in the social and extracurricular void that colleges shifting to remote learning leave behind, "disruption and unbundling is called for," according to 27-year-old cofounder Adam Bragg.

That "unbundling" will take the form of two bubble "campuses": one in Waikiki, Hawaii, and the other in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Both are in hotels that Bragg and Russell said they have bought out.

"Something like this could have never been done before — mainly because the separation of a college experience from colleges was never possible. They held the college experience for ransom, and now that they've shifted to online learning, there is an opportunity to do something like this," Bragg said. He added that, pre-pandemic, a complete buyout "wasn't necessarily an interesting thing for a lot of the hotels, or at least they didn't know they had the interest for this thing. And so on both sides, the levels of coordination are a lot higher than was ever possible before."

 

The U Experience cofounders Adam Bragg, left, and Lane Russell. Business Insider photo

Neither has a background in higher education, hospitality, or event-planning. Bragg said that the duo "did go through Princeton together, and we were able to have an understanding of the college experience firsthand, and we understand the value of it."

They said that as of four weeks ago, both have left their jobs to work on The U Experience full-time. Russell said they're funding the venture with personal savings — although he declined to share an exact figure.

"If we risk a couple of months and have to get back on our feet after this, that'll be a small price to pay for having gotten the idea out there and maybe helping people," Russell said.

Bragg said that they have partnered with people in the hospital industry and media industry — which their website identifies as Hotel Connections and Happi House Collective, respectively.

While Russell and Bragg would not say how many applications they've received, they said they have enough to fill a class, but need more to get the project off the ground.

"We really do want to take the time to go through these applications carefully and make sure that students are properly vetted, that they're all going to have a good time, and be safe and healthy here," Russell said.

The group's handbook says that all students must take a Covid test after they're admitted to the program; Russell said they plan on coordinating with the students and local testing sites, or plan on "finding a way to get them to a testing site." Students will be asked to self-quarantine between the test and their arrival on campus. Russell said, "obviously, that puts a little bit of trust in these kids."

He pointed to Hawaii's mandatory 14-day self quarantine policy, and said that students wouldn't be exposed to each other immediately. He also said that, because they're buying out entire hotels, they can devote extra rooms and quarters to quarantining.

 

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