As universities shifted to a virtual platform this year, students could take classes from anywhere — as long as there's WiFi.
As a result, off-campus houses now look extremely different, as some students packed their bags and traveled thousands of miles away from their college towns.
Insider spoke to four students about their decision to live far away from college and home this semester.
Video: 15 college students on how the pandemic derailed their lives
For college students across the country, "off-campus housing" has a new meaning this semester.
For Erik Boesen, it looks like a deserted ski lodge in Durango, Colorado — 2,000 miles away from his college, Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut.
For Alya Al-Kibbi, off-campus means a DC townhouse on the opposite side of the country where she spent the last two years studying at the California Institute of Technology.
As universities across the country shifted to virtual classes this semester to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, college students saw it as an opportunity to take classes from anywhere — as long as there's WiFi.
The New York Times reporter, Taylor Lorenz, coined the houses as "college collab houses," following the recent trend of social media influencers renting out homes to focus solely on producing content and supporting each other on platforms like YouTube and TikTok.
Insider spoke to four students who rented out homes this semester to create "college collab houses" in an attempt to replicate some element of the college experience.
Erik Boesen and his roommates spend their free time exploring the surrounding mountains and nature in Durango, Colorado. Erik Boesen
Whether the students' college was open, partially open, or closed, it was clear that college social life wouldn't be the same this semester.
Instead of going back to school and isolating in a dorm, these students opted for new experiences in new places.
A year ago, Luke Igel, 21, would've never imagined spending his junior year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from a townhouse in Park City, Utah.
But when classes were shifted to an online platform last spring, Igel immediately had the idea to gather a group of friends to live together.
"We decided to all get together and try to reclaim a lot of this time that we had lost from not being with each other since March," he told Insider.
As an electrical engineering and computer science major, most of his classes were collaborative, so completing them online at home in Minneapolis, Minnesota, wasn't ideal, he said.
He started planning for a summer that would be vastly different from spring.
"We were considering a lot of places that were remote where the numbers looked quite good, COVID-wise," the 21-year-old said. "Where the cost of living would be quite low, the outdoors would be beautiful, and the WiFi would still be good."
In June, he moved into a five-bedroom townhouse in Park City.
Instead of exploring Cambridge, the group spent time hiking, playing cards, and improving their cooking skills, Igel said.
Boesen, a sophomore at Yale, has also attempted to replicate elements of college with his three roommates in Durango.
"There are the things that you would consider to be part of what college is normally, like large parties and social events, which are obviously not really happening right now," the 20-year-old told Insider. "But we're definitely replicating as much of the social experience of college as we can while remaining safe."
That replication looks like late nights hanging out or binging TV. It also looks like weekends spent hiking, fishing, and exploring the outdoors.
Erik Boesen and his roommates found a deal on housing this semester by staying off-season at a ski lodge. Erik Boesen
The students Insider spoke with listed a variety of reasons for their choice in destination: Some wanted isolated destinations in nature, while others opted for the advantages of a city.
For Al-Kibbi, her household prioritized low COVID case numbers and an international airport, the junior at CalTech told Insider.
With one of the four household members traveling from Germany, the group wanted to make sure that everyone could get home safely and quickly in case of another serious lockdown.
Al-Kibbi, 20, and her roommates mapped out cities with the lowest number of COVID cases and tossed around a handful of destinations.
They landed on an Airbnb in DC. A bonus was that Al-Kibbi is from DC, so she has access to her family and a car.
Sophia Dew, a junior at Stanford University, on the other hand, wanted to make sure the house felt like she was far from home.
After growing up 20 minutes outside of Stanford, Dew, 20, saw this semester as an opportunity to explore somewhere new, while still staying relatively close to campus.
Dew and seven of her sorority sisters settled on a five-bedroom home in Pacific Grove, California, just an hour-and-a-half drive to Sanford.
The house was close enough to school but far enough away to feel like a new destination. It also had a key feature everyone in the group prioritized: proximity to the beach.
Sophia Dew's household has transformed the upstairs living room into an office space. Sophia Dew
Igel said his parents were the hardest to convince.
It took multiple spreadsheets and discussions before he had their support to spend summer and fall in Park City.
Before Igel and his friend arrived at the house, every detail was mapped out. Everyone would quarantine for two weeks before flying to Utah. They'd pick up groceries curbside and limit social interaction.
The other students Insider spoke with emphasized that their households, for the most part, shared the same values and approach on how to handle the pandemic.
Since many of them are staying in unfamiliar cities, there are no invitations to parties or friends to meet up with.
Because Dew's household is a little larger with eight women, she and her roommates had discussions about what everyone can and can't do.
While the household runs on a case-by-case basis, they've all agreed to limit interactions with people outside of their home.
"We think of ourselves as like a quarantine house, ultimately, because we are a house of eight girls so if all of us are just going out and seeing people, then we can bring back virus here," Dew said.
Al-Kibbi said she and her roommates had some discussions about COVID safety, but they, too, didn't plan to leave home often. Besides grocery runs, walks around the monuments, and visits to Al-Kibbi's parents, they spend a majority of their time studying in the townhouse.
"I think we all kind of just trust each other's common sense," she said.
Alya Al-Kibbi's roommates have been helpful collaborators this semester, both in the kitchen and in classes. Alya Al-Kibbi
Boesen is a self-proclaimed penny pincher, so he was thrilled when he realized he could save money this fall while exploring a new destination.
"I think it's actually more accessible than people might expect," Boesen said.
He said each member in his household is saving about $4,000 this semester by living in the deserted ski lodge, and their home is slightly larger than the space they'd have at Yale.
Dew is paying $2,000 for the 10 weeks for the home in Pacific Grove. A semester in a Stanford residence hall costs $3,575, so Dew and her roommates are saving about $1,500 each this semester.
Dew said she's also saving a lot of money on food. A Stanford meal plan, which is required for students living in dorms, costs nearly $2,000. Dew guesses her portion of the shared groceries cost about $50 a week.
In the last two months, Igel and his seven roommates have consumed 75 pounds of rice.
Communal meals have been a huge source of savings for Igel, he said.
Last year he lived in a co-op where he cooked individual portions of meals. Now he's buying in bulk and eating with a household.
Al-Kibbi and her roommates are paying more for their home in DC compared to CalTech dorm rooms, but she said they're saving money by not being on CalTech's meal plan.
"It ends up kind of balancing out," she said. "Plus our dorms at CalTech are the size of a walk-in closet, and here we've got a full two-story house with three bedrooms, a kitchen, and two living rooms."
The students each noted that they could've saved more money by living at home, but that a spring and summer spent from home left them craving an experience closer to what they had last fall.
"We're very lucky to be able to do this, but I'm also proud that we were able to get together and lean on each other to support ourselves in this difficult time," Al-Kibbi said.
Erik Boesen and his roommates this fall. Erik Boesen
Al-Kibbi's roommates this semester don't just fill the social role she missed while she was taking online classes last spring — her roommates serve as key study partners for this semester.
Since all four of her roommates are physics majors, their house is jokingly known as the "Physics House" across the department.
Each weekday they pile onto the couch to watch online lectures together or problem-solve homework from the dining room table.
"[Last semester] was just a completely different experience," she said about studying from home. "It was so much harder to do, so much less exciting, and I was not learning as much as I was when I was there in person."
Dew's household is split down the middle. Half of the women are taking gap years and the other half are enrolled in online classes.
Dew opted to take a gap year and is spending the year designing a dating app based on video chats.
Dew said that living in a household of students has kept her motivated and focused on work.
"This feels almost like a giant incubator," Dew said. "In the sense that we all wake up and do work together. There's definitely a big emphasis on work."
While it's far from what the student envisioned college looking like, they're happy with their choice
At the end of the day, all the students Insider spoke with said they felt safer in their households than if they had gone back to campus this fall.
"I don't want to make judgments about other people, but it's very hard to trust a few hundred college students to listen to the same set of rules," Al-Kibbi said.
Beyond feeling safer from contracting COVID-19, it's also provided them a unique experience that they couldn't have imagined a year ago.
"Considering the situation, I'm really glad that we've gone out on a limb and made the decision to explore this new way to experience college," Boesen said.
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