Colleges have come rushing forth to announce that they will be inviting students back to campus this fall. But as I’ve spoken to college officials over the past few weeks — usually not for quotation — I’ve been struck by the difference between their public optimism and their private uncertainty.

Many university leaders aren’t sure how well on-campus living and in-person classes will work during this pandemic. Some acknowledge it may not work at all.

It will require radical changes to the normal campus experience, like canceling many activities, rotating which students can return (to keep dorms from being too full) and continuing to hold classes online (to protect professors).

This approach is likely to frustrate students — and it still might not prevent new coronavirus outbreaks. Nearly all distinctive parts of a campus experience, including parties, meals and extracurriculars, revolve around close social contact, often indoors.

So what explains the surge of “We’re open!” announcements? Competitive pressure, in part. Many colleges will face serious financial problems if they lose a year of tuition and other revenue.

Now professors and administrators have begun publicly criticizing reopening plans:

  • “My suspicion,” Susan Dynarski, a University of Michigan economist, wrote on Twitter, is that “colleges are holding out hope of in-person classes in order to keep up enrollments.” She added: “If they tell the difficult truth now, many students will decide to take a year off,” which “will send college finances into a tailspin.”
  • Carl Bergstrom, a biologist at the University of Washington, noted that the new class of Army recruits at Fort Benning recently suffered a major outbreak, despite universal testing there.
  • “Colleges are deluding themselves,” Michael J. Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, wrote in The Atlantic. Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychologist, wrote a Times Op-Ed arguing that the reopening plans were “so unrealistically optimistic that they border on delusional.”
  • Many “professors are wary of returning to the classroom, fearful that the health risks may be too high,” Deirdre Fernandes, a Boston Globe reporter, wrote. And Clara Burke of Carnegie Mellon University wrote: “Students can get ‘grab and go’ sandwiches, but do kitchen workers have enough space to protect themselves while making those sandwiches?”

There are no easy answers. Telling students to stay home in the fall also has big downsides. And it’s possible that students will do a better job wearing masks and remaining socially distant than skeptics like Steinberg expect.

But the path that colleges are choosing comes with big risks. American higher education is about to embark on a highly uncertain experiment.

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