- The U Experience, a startup which aims to create a “bubble campus” environment for college students studying remotely, is aiming to launch at a Texas resort in January.
- Previous attempts didn’t go forward in Hawaii, Arkansas, and Florida.
- One epidemiologist told Business Insider the program just can’t be a “true bubble.” The U Experience responded in a statement: “It’s interesting you were able to find an epidemiologist willing to stake their reputation on claims about our COVID policy despite never having discussed it with us, our testing team, or their epidemiologists.”
- The program is allowing applicants to vote on who will join them at the resort; the founders say they’ll make the final call.
- An applicant who’s an Instagram influencer said The U Experience will compensate her for recruiting more applicants, which the company confirmed to Business Insider.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Lane Russell and Adam Bragg said that they could fix the fall’s education crisis. They would offer an antidote to attending class remotely in a shadow of the college experience.
Their idea: a bubble campus.
In August, they announced plans for campuses in Hawaii and Arkansas, to be held in luxurious-looking resorts that “The U Experience” would buy out for the semester. They would “unbundle” the college experience by allowing students from different colleges to take their courses online from resort-hotels, and have the opportunity to eat, socialize, and interact with one another.
“Something like this could have never been done before – mainly because the separation of a college experience from colleges was never possible,” Bragg said at the time.
But the programs in Hawaii and Arkansas were canceled just a few days after Business Insider’s report. Later in August, Russell and Bragg told Business Insider that the program would be at the Waterstone Resort & Marina in Boca Raton, Florida. That version of the U Experience didn’t happen either. Along the way, critics began to compare The U Experience to another recent much-hyped event of charismatic millennial vintage: the Fyre Festival.
Now Russell and Bragg are back, and they’re headed Texas.
From what the U Experience cofounders and their marketing materials claim, the Dallas area may be a land of contradictions. The founders compare their forthcoming bubble to that of the highly regulated National Basketball Association, though the website advertises off-campus hikes. At least one ad claims “no face masks!” will be needed, while the company website promises that face masks will be provided. And then there’s the keg-standing elephant in the room: College students in 2020 have not been known for their love of guidelines, but for partying.
To go inside the January relaunch of the bubble, Business Insider talked to the program’s CEO, two applicants, an epidemiologist, as well as New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz and a critical YouTuber.
Will it burst again?
After three false starts, it’s time for Texas
The idea for The U Experience began when Harvard said it would shift to remote learning for the fall, but would continue to charge full tuition, Lane Russell told Business Insider back in August.
“It really made us think about, ‘What is the thing that college is offering, and what are students getting out of it?” Russell said then. “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.”
Russell, a former track and field triple jump champion, studied economics before working as analyst at Goldman Sachs until September 2019. Bragg, who graduated in 2016, studied economic history. He was a champion pole vaulter there, and his LinkedIn still lists him as a professional athlete.
Neither had a background in hospitality, higher education, or event planning.
Russell and Bragg brought in a third cofounder in September: Chris Cook, himself a 2017 Princeton grad. According to Cook’s LinkedIn, he previously worked as a marketing manager for Hotel Connections, which supplies tech for airlines finding accommodations for their crews, and as a math teacher in Florida.
Russell told Business Insider that the Florida plans were pushed after he and Bragg spoke with parents of attendees. He said they didn’t have “the clear go-ahead” from parents, some of whom had already made plans for the fall or had their children sign leases.
“In terms of pushing the program back to the spring, we felt like it gave everyone a lot more time to just really make sure everything was built out,” Russell said. He also said pushing it back allowed them to expand the properties under consideration, leading to the current plan to blow up a new bubble in Texas.
The program is now set to take place a little north of Dallas at Tanglewood Resort. A press release from The U Experience claims that the program has bought out the whole 242-room property from January 28 to April 18. The property boasts onsite dining, a private beach, and a golf course.
“We are honored that Tanglewood Resort will have the opportunity to serve as the inaugural home for The U Experience,” John Schwichtenberg, the resort’s general manager, said in an U Experience press release. “We’re devoted to providing the finest possible experiences to our guests, and we know that The U Experience shares this same commitment.”
Tanglewood Resorts did not respond to Insider’s repeated requests for further comment.
Membership starts at $8,700, and (required) meal packages start at $1,200. Students can upgrade to a “premium experience” for an extra $1,800. Prospective students will join a 150-person “bubble community” at the resort.
The program declined to provide Business Insider with any reports on their finances. Russell said the program continues to be completely self-funded by the cofounders.
Russell said that they’ve received “thousands of applications” for the new semester. Over the holiday weekend, they tried to attract new students with a giveaway: three random people who created profiles would win either the PS5, a Sephora gift card, or a full scholarship to the program.
Russell said students will be tested and quarantined immediately upon arrival, and then tested again after 24 hours of quarantine. Per the program’s COVID protocol, students are required to self-isolate for five days before the program’s start date. Three days in they will then take an “antibody rapid test” sent by the U Experience, and then continue to self-isolate for two days.
“The integrity of the bubble is exactly as extensive as before,” Russell said. “The COVID protocol that we’ve been developing with Veritas testing has only gotten stronger with time.”
On campus, they’ll be testing a random sample of their students every three days with a rapid antigen test, which can provide false negatives and do not prevent outbreaks, per Business Insider reporting. In addition, there will be signs with CDC guidelines posted – which include wearing a face mask – and face masks provided.The program also has protocols in place for a positive test, and in case students need to leave campus.
But, in the website’s FAQ, the program writes: “Our students will be free to behave as they did before the pandemic while they’re on campus, without taking on any more risk than if they’d quarantined at home. No masks, social distancing, or other cautionary measures will be required of our students when interacting with each other. Feel free to take a sigh of relief.”
Epidemiologist Dr. Syra Madad, the senior director of the system-wide Special Pathogens Program at New York City Health + Hospitals, told Business Insider that “no community is isolated or truly in a bubble.” She said that while it’s possible for the program to add in COVID-19 mitigation measures – such as frequent testing – a program the size of The U Experience “is not a true bubble.”
Russell said that students will have no interaction with hotel staff, and protocols say interactions will be limited. But Dr. Madad said anyone who goes off-site at the resort (including workers) “will bring their own exposure history for all intents and purposes.”
And Dr. Madad noted that Texas, the state where the program is set to take place, is a coronavirus hotspot.
“If you have a lot of community transmission in the surrounding area, you’re bound to have sample cases within that particular community, as isolated as you’re going to try to make it,” she said.
When presented with these concerns, The U Experience said in a statement the hotel “already follows” all CDC guidelines, and it is only adding “additional layers of testing, security, and containment.”
“Our program is also 1/10th the size of the successful NBA bubble,” the cofounders wrote. “It’s interesting you were able to find an epidemiologist willing to stake their reputation on claims about our COVID policy despite never having discussed it with us, our testing team, or their epidemiologists. Could we also get your epidemiologist’s public stance on large, mask-free group dinners at the French Laundry? We have a birthday coming up.”
Online scrutiny and backlash
Since it first launched in August, The U Experience has attracted a lot of attention.
The new spring semester isn’t different.
“No masks. No social distancing. A real college experience. Spring 2021. Learn how.” So read a sponsored Instagram story from The U Experience on November 27. Jamari, a 24-year-old who runs the Jamarispeaks YouTube channel with 572,000 followers, noticed it.
—🍂 addie (6’2”) 🎄 (@arborheart) November 27, 2020
After getting tagged in a screenshot, Jamari – who, like many Youtubers, prefers his last name not shared — made a YouTube video about The U Experience, titled it “Do NOT Fall For This Instagram Scam,” and racked up over 125,000 views after posting it on November 28.
Jamari’s fans poured into the comments of the program’s Instagram account to say that Jamari had sent them there. “It’s definitely not the right time to be doing this, to try and capitalize on such a tragic situation that we have going on in this country,” Jamari said of why he created the video.
When asked about the video, Russell said “It was pretty clear from the video that he hadn’t really extensively read the website or picked up on the most recent facts.”
The U Experience’s Instagram comments and Twitter mentions are flooded with skeptics – and it hasn’t hesitated to engage with some of its critics.
In one instance, The U Experience’s Twitter account specifically targeted New York Times (and former Business Insider) technology reporter Taylor Lorenz, who had critically tweeted the same screenshot of the November 27 story touting no masks or social distancing. She also tweeted out slides showing the resort’s restaurant and conference hall.
In a tweeted response, The U Experience falsely asserted that Lorenz had attended a college costing $50,000 per year and linked to the archive of a deleted Twitter account claiming that she went to a $90,000 per year boarding school and practices “doxxing.”
—The U Experience (@theexperienceu) November 28, 2020
She also told Business Insider she found the link in the tweet “worrying,” adding that “it’s unsurprising given the fact that they’re openly planning to host a massive superspreader event.”
“We have no hostility towards any journalists – the tweet that you’re referring to, we don’t know the specific background,” Russell said. “We certainly don’t endorse anyone on Twitter for these tweets. It’s probably important to note that we mean no ill will to any journalists.”
Students are still excited to arrive on ‘campus’
There are still students actively applying for the program and vying to join its Texan “bubble.”
Brian Gensheimer, 20, is a junior at University of Texas at Austin, where he studies mechanical engineering. He said in an email that he decided to apply to The U Experience after seeing an Instagram ad, since it’s been hard for him to focus on online school, and he misses spending time with friends.
“I think the program is an amazing opportunity to connect with a large group of people from around the country,” Gensheimer said. “The activities would be fun, and since we’d be in a bubble it would be relatively safe. The resort also seems to have some cool activities.”
The website touts weekly mixers, guest lectures, and even off-campus excursions that have the potential to break the “bubble” – such as hiking and camping – as potential activities for students.
Sumner Stroh, 21, was sought out by The U Experience. She’s a senior studying advertising and business at University of Texas. She’s also an influencer with 150,000 Instagram followers. Earlier in the year, The U Experience asked her to promote their Florida campus on her Instagram story; she said that they paid her standard rate at the time.
But, as she did more research, she said she became interested in joining the program. She applied and was accepted. “At the end of the day, I am the type of person that does need that social life to thrive,” she said.
Stroh also said that she struck a deal with the cofounders: she would either get a cash payout from the number of references she brought in for the program, or each reference would knock money off her tuition. Since she hesitated at the price tag, she said she’s putting her references towards tuition.
“Any influencers who are interested in discounts offered through our referral program should reach out to us directly. Thank you for helping to get the word out,” The U Experience said when asked for comment about the payment and tuition deal. Stroh told Business Insider that the cofounders text with her “frequently” and “constantly update her.”
One thing that’s confused Stroh: The official U Experience account writing on Instagram that students would vote on who joined them on campus, something reminiscent of Harvard-era Facebook, when it asked students to rate each other’s attractiveness.
“I was not aware of that,” Stroh said. “I don’t want to do any voting. I don’t care who goes.”
She later said that the cofounders told her there wouldn’t be voting, but posts that followed that conversation touted the voting program.
Russell said that students will be able to see each other’s profiles, and then vote for who they’d like to see on campus. It will help the founders “find the most social, influential, and interesting students,” he added.
“Applicants will be able to indicate which students they’d like to see in the program by sending ‘likes,’ but this will not be the sole determining factor in our admissions process,” The U Experience said in a statement provided to Business Insider. “We are giving students a say in the community they’ll be a part of.”