Colleges and universities nationwide could be making a big mistake by sending students home from campus because of the coronavirus. They may be making it more likely, not less, that their own students will contract the disease, and also more likely that they will spread it more widely and to populations that are more at risk.

College campuses tend to be semi-closed environments, and they are filled with people who are at an age when they are generally more robust than the general population. College students, of course, don’t spend all of their time on campus, but except for at “commuter colleges,” their lives generally revolve around campus in ways that keep them semi-segregated most of the time.

As such, students are generally less likely to interact with broader populations coming from a wider variety of “walks of life” if campuses remain open than if students are all sent back to their hometowns. They are at least equally likely to contract the virus in their hometowns as they are on campus, if not more. While an outbreak can occur anywhere, the likelihood of affliction is greater the more diverse a population one encounters.

Meanwhile, at least at the margins, students in their home communities are more likely to spread the virus to more people and to populations at greater risk than they would on campus. Again, because young adults are generally healthier anyway, they probably remain asymptomatic longer than other people do, or their symptoms can appear weak enough that they aren’t identified as the coronavirus as quickly. In short, they are more likely to be unwitting carriers of the contagion. Therefore, if they are moving in and out of populations with more old people and more young children than they would if they remain on campus, they are more likely to transmit the virus — before they even know they have it — to those other, more vulnerable people.

Indeed, experts cited by the Washington Post with regard to grade school closings offered concerns very much along these lines. Granted, they are speaking of children, not college-aged adults, but if anything, the experts’ thoughts apply even more to those in college.

“If I had a perfect crystal ball that closing schools is the right thing to do, I would say so,” Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told the Post. “I have one foot deeper into ‘don’t close schools’ right now than ‘close them’… And I can’t even say closing down schools to clean them will make a difference. The data isn’t there.”

Officials in Seattle, where there has been a major outbreak, have resisted school closures, arguing that they "could increase the risk that children who are infected but don’t have symptoms may infect older family members.”

And Harvard University epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch said this with regard to school closings: “We don’t know if that’s an important control measure or if it’s just a very expensive, costly and disruptive control measure.”

In sum, it might be initially counterintuitive to say that campuses should remain open, but there is a certain logic to it. College administrations should take these potential repercussions into account before making their decisions final.