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They’re giving it the old college try.
Three Princeton grads plan to salvage the fun and debauchery that co-eds are missing out on this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic — by packing students from across the US into a hotel. Called the U Experience, the controversial program will be mask-free and un-distanced.
“We’re making online learning attractive,” said CEO Lane Russell, a 24-year-old Goldman Sachs alum. “You don’t have to take your courses in your parents’ basement.”
Known as the U, the company was co-founded by Russell and pals Adam Bragg, 27, and Chris Cook, 25. The plan is to house 150 students at the Tanglewood Resort, on Lake Texoma near the border between Texas and Oklahoma, starting in January, serving as a campus for remote learners. The goal is to create a social bubble so kids can partake in the partying banned at their real university at the sprawling hotel — which boasts three pools, its own marina, a golf course, volleyball courts and five restaurants — while still pursuing a degree from their home institution.
The project’s ambitions have been compared on social media to the infamous Fyre Fest, the failed music festival masterminded by Billy McFarland in the Bahamas in 2017, and skewered for hosting a giant group gathering while the country is being ravaged by the coronavirus. “How dare you endanger people for your own SELFISH agenda!” wrote one commenter on the U’s Instagram.
Russell rejects any comparison to ill-fated Fyre.
“We aren’t setting up a bunch of tents on an island,” he said. “We’re putting 150 people into a fully operational hotel, and we’ve spent the past four months perfecting the logistics of this on the back end.”
Still, experts like Alvin Tran, a social epidemiologist based at the University of New Haven, are worried the campus could become a COVID-19 superspreader.
“Given that there are no plans to encourage mask wearing, I’d be very concerned,” said the public health expert, citing the company’s Facebook video that advertises “no masks.” Plus, the size of the bubble — 150 kids plus staffers — is concerning. The more people in the bubble, Tran says, the more likely an infection will break out. “There’s always the risk that one person might go rogue … It’s just a large gamble I wouldn’t be willing to take.”
The CDC similarly classifies a gathering where “attendees travel from outside the local area” — as would be the case at the U — as at the “highest risk” for spreading the disease.
But by relying on “rigorous testing” and their “close-knit community to keep each other accountable,” Russell insists their health precautions are up to snuff. They’ve partnered with Veritas Testing, an LA-based, mobile rapid-testing company, and are betting on a “containment first” policy. That means students are tested twice before they step foot on campus, to hedge against false negatives. Then there will be regular temperature checks, and services like on-site grocery delivery.
“We’ve been drawing from the successes of the NBA bubble,” said Russell, referencing the closed-to-outsiders campus that pro-basketball players lived and competed on during this year’s playoffs. “We know the eyes of the world will be on us.”
Tran maintains “the NBA has a ton of resources” — it reportedly cost about $190 million to pull off its bubble — and also notes that testing isn’t a fail safe. “I’d rather they wait for the vaccine to come out before they do anything.”
Concerns over the pandemic haven’t deterred prospective students. Russell says they’ve received about 1,500 applications.
“I’d be ecstatic if I got in,” Seferino Doenhaufer, who applied a few days ago, told The Post. The 19-year-old business major misses music festivals and “just hanging out with my friends.”
The Mount St. Mary’s University freshman wasn’t impressed with the social scene his first semester, where he was taking classes remotely while living in the dorms. “It got repetitive,” said Doenhaufer, who wasn’t able to gather with friends in groups on campus. “You woke up, signed into class, and then a lot of people would go back to sleep after.”
Doenhaufer said a semester at Tanglewood seems safer than renting out houses in small, unregulated groups near his school, a trend he’s seen among friends who want to avoid living at home with their parents. “It’s more likely to lead to infection than the bubble method,” he said.
Packages at the U start at $9,900 and go up to $12,700, which includes a room upgrade and a “more extensive meal plan,” according to Russell. Kids would still have to pay whatever their university charges for remote learning.
The U’s website says they’ll have a guest-speaker series, “career mentorship” and poolside happy hours, but makes no mention of one major element of life at the U: a potential reality show that Russell says will live on a “major streaming platform.”
The reality-show component will be an optional extracurricular, said Russell, who insists he’s not accepting students based on who will be the most camera-ready. “We started taking applications before there was a show in the works,” he said, adding that he’ll announce the 150 accepted students over the next few weeks.
Applicant Liana Valle, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Missouri, wasn’t aware of the reality show, but sees the U as the first step to becoming an influencer. “I want to get my music out there and expand my audience,” the aspiring singer and YouTuber told The Post.
Indeed, the admissions office — composed of the three founders, who all live together in San Diego — is looking for “social leaders.”
“If a student doesn’t have a large following before the program,” said Russell, “they certainly will have one after.”