The procrastination caught up to Ken Forbeck in late November.
The UW-Madison freshman had fallen a few weeks behind on note-taking in his Environmental Studies class and, in what is a familiar routine to many college students, Forbeck powered through a cram session to catch up.
What wasn’t typical were Forbeck’s surroundings. Instead of confining himself to a corner of College Library or doubling down at a table in Der Rathskeller, he toiled away in the bedroom of his Beloit home.
COVID-19 complicated the transition for all freshmen last year, but especially for students who started their college careers from home. For the Forbeck family, those complications have been multiplied by four: Ken and three of his siblings, 18-year-old quadruplets, all became freshmen at the same time.
The quadruplets had always been a package deal, together even before they were born. College was supposed to represent the fork in the road where each of them would take a new, independent path at different schools. But the pandemic extended their time together.
Helen, a self-described homebody, was the first to decide to live at home while taking some classes online and some in person on Beloit College’s campus.
Next came Nick, who, like Helen, has asthma and wanted to be extra cautious. He opted out of living in a Rockford University dorm but still took some of his classes on campus.
Pat followed. He was bound for Menomonie to attend UW-Stout, the furthest from home among the four. But what if he got sick? Or his roommate became infected with COVID-19? Would it be safe to come home after his grandmother, who was on oxygen, moved into their house in late August? The distance complicated things, and it was easier to complete the semester entirely online.
Ken was the last to decide to stay home. The most outgoing of the bunch, he longed for an on-campus experience. He’d received his No. 1 dorm choice at UW-Madison and had already started texting his assigned roommate. Both of them were on the same page when it came to the importance of wearing masks.
But as the summer wore on, Ken decided to stay put for safety’s sake.
“It definitely wasn’t an easy decision,” he wrote in a text message on the day he canceled his housing contract, just a week before move-in began.
As challenging as the semester was for the Forbecks, they had a silver lining few other freshmen had — each other.
‘Everyone is missing out’
Helen, Pat and Nick all decided on their colleges before the pandemic disrupted their senior year of high school.
Ken was torn between UW-Madison and Northland College, about an hour east of Superior. He went with Wisconsin’s flagship because it was much closer to home, offered better financial aid and was where his older brother, Marty, had just graduated from last May.
Ken knew his freshman year wouldn’t be anything like the one Marty had, even if he lived on campus. All but one of his classes was scheduled to be online.
“I’ve tried to emphasize that everyone their age is in the same boat,” said their dad, Matt Forbeck. “Everyone is missing out on all of this.”
The family had long planned to throw a blowout bash celebrating both the quadruplets’ high school graduation and their 18th birthday in June. It was canceled, just like the in-person graduation ceremony their high school previously postponed for late summer.
The Forbecks instead watched a slideshow of student photos from their couch in what was a prelude to the quadruplets’ fall semester — lots of family time and lots of screen time.
“I always thought my first year of college was going to be new and different things,” Nick said in August, a few weeks before classes began. “Right now it seems like it’s going to be more of the same.”
Helen was perhaps the most accepting of the disruption, saying, “I like home and I like my brothers. It’s going to be weird when we all leave.”
“Did you get that on tape?” Pat jokingly asked in disbelief during a joint phone interview.
He was most looking forward to the spring semester when he hoped to finally live on Stout’s campus, a place he’d only ever seen through a screen.
The right call
The Forbecks’ fears about campus outbreaks came to fruition at UW-Madison within days of classes starting, reinforcing to Ken that he made the right decision in staying home.
He saw on Snapchat how students struggled through a two-week lockdown early in the semester. He read in one of the student newspapers about some of his peers intentionally trying to infect themselves. His Facebook feed filled with posts about students giving up on university housing altogether, moving out of their dorm rooms. His inbox piled up with emails for students living on or near campus.
“Nope, doesn’t pertain to me. Delete,” he said of his email purging.
By semester’s end, Ken hadn’t set foot on campus at all.
How many UW-Madison freshmen started their college careers like Ken is unclear.
University Housing reports roughly 84%, or a little over 6,100 students in the freshman class, moved into dorms this fall, down from 92% in the fall of 2019. The breakdown of the remaining 16%, which includes both students who stayed home and those who lived in off-campus housing, was not available.
Some students have questioned whether college during a pandemic is worth the cost and ended up skipping the semester altogether. The number of freshmen nationwide who showed up either in person or online declined 13% from the previous year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
The University of Wisconsin System reported a 6% decline in first-year enrollment based on preliminary figures.
None of the Forbecks said they ever seriously considered taking a gap year. But they also know their experience comes with a clock that, for most students, runs out in four years.
“What is the campus life supposed to be like in Madison?” Ken asked. “It’s so weird to think about when will I get that. How quickly will we get that? I’m only here for a couple years. Will we ever return to the ‘normal’ that was in place before all of this started?”
Freshmen faced many of the same struggles in making friends and adjusting to online learning no matter where they lived this fall, said Chris Verhaeghe, an assistant director for UW-Madison’s Center for the First-Year Experience.
UW-Madison organized a range of online events to help students meet others: bingo, escape rooms, small groups. But digital substitutes only go so far, Verhaeghe said. When students spend nearly all day in online classes, they don’t want to spend another hour in front of their screens.
UW-Madison freshmen survey results six weeks into the semester — at the conclusion of a period researchers say is most critical for the college transition — showed a “significant drop” in student confidence compared to previous years, Verhaeghe said. Less than half of responding students were very or extremely confident they would succeed in college.
“They don’t feel that connection we know they need to feel successful,” he said.
Sophomores have never been the center’s focus, but Verhaeghe said discussions are already taking place about how to help this year’s class transition to campus next fall.
“The ripple effects of this pandemic on higher ed — it will be years before we return to a ‘regular’ operation,” he said.
‘Going’ to college without a campus
For decades, young adults have flocked to college because of a promise that a degree will get them a good-paying job. But students also pay for the college experience — something COVID-19 has largely stripped away.
The Forbecks imagined coming home on holiday breaks to share stories with each other about the unique experiences they were promised on campus tours and in marketing materials. Instead, the quadruplets’ fall semesters blurred together in what sometimes felt like one long extension of the past 18 years they’d spent together.
Nick said having their freshman year together was, in a way, a relief for an introvert like him.
“But it’s also kind of bad because I don’t get to branch out and become my own person separate from that,” he said. “It feels good but maybe it isn’t good.”
Nick ended up dropping three of his five classes for personal reasons unrelated to the pandemic. He earned A’s in his two other classes and hopes to get back on track in the spring.
Ken’s online classes were better than he expected. He finished the semester strong, with a 4.0 GPA, but he struggles to describe the relationships he formed with some classmates.
Friends? Acquaintances? What should he call people he’s only interacted with in online discussion groups and over Snapchat?
“We’re trying to make these connections on devices that can only do so much to make up for the life experience,” he said.
Nick, Helen and Pat all decided fairly early to continue living at home their spring semester. Ken held out longer, but eventually decided to do the same. He plans to live in a dorm his sophomore year.
It may be a little late and out of order but he will get a real college experience. Eventually.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Menomonie.
Fave 5: Higher education reporter Kelly Meyerhofer shares her top picks of 2020
Fave 5: Higher education reporter Kelly Meyerhofer shares her top picks of 2020
The first story I wrote this year was about a two-legged dog. 2020 only got more weird from there.
In early March, I sat in a room with about a hundred others listening to UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank brief professors on how the coronavirus might affect campus operations. During the Faculty Senate meeting, she encouraged instructors to consider what classes or meetings could be delivered online.
"We have no idea quite what may be coming, if anything,” she said on March 2.
Oh, how quickly did the world change.
Over the next nine months, I wrote stories that would have seemed surreal a year ago: dorm rooms considered for potential hospital overflow, online commencement ceremonies, campus mask mandates and students stuck in lockdown.
It's been a privilege to bear witness to all of the seismic changes 2020 brought to college campuses, most of which I reported from my kitchen table (OK, and sometimes my couch). I'm grateful to the State Journal's subscribers who help support my job as one of the few higher education reporters in Wisconsin. The five stories listed below were some of my favorites, but you can find the 172 other stories I've written so far this year here.
UW-Platteville Richland had nearly 250 students in 1980 when the campus was considered for closure. Today, it has 155.
The annual Match Day tradition, where students stand on stage to learn where they will do their residencies, was scuttled because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Thousands of students moved into UW-Madison's dorms with a mixed set of emotions about the semester ahead — excitement, hope, doubt, fear — and I tried to capture it all in this story.
UW-Madison's return to the physical classroom stokes fear among some who say the safest option is to continue online and relief from others whose experience teaching or learning remotely was underwhelming.
The Trump administration proposed a number of actions that made life difficult for international students.