The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally restructured higher education for at least the next semester. Come fall, many college students are yet again facing a life off-campus, sitting in front of a screen. Despite the obvious differences between online and in-person education, colleges and universities are largely set on maintaining — if not raising — tuitions. This raises the question: Is an online education worth the same as one in person? It also raises a broader, more important question: What is the value of a college education?
Before I try to answer them, let me show my cards. I am a rising senior at Harvard, where only first-years and students with extraordinary circumstances will return to campus in the fall and only seniors will return in the spring. Harvard’s residential capacity has been topped at 40 percent, and all classes for all students — including those living on campus — will be online for the fall and spring semesters.
Many other colleges have opted for partial on-campus attendance and full or partial online education in the interest of public health. For instance, Princeton is bringing freshmen and juniors back in the fall with sophomores and seniors returning in the spring. The University of California system is opting for online courses. Boston University is allowing all students to return to campus but will be offering a mix of virtual and in-person classes. The University of Texas at Austin is offering online, on-campus, and hybrid courses. Students returning to campus at any of these schools will be met by stringent social restrictions.
Regardless of this shrinking of the typical college experience, some institutions, like Harvard, the UCs, and Yale, have decided to charge full tuition for online or hybrid plans. This decision presumes that any combination of in-person and online college courses is worth a fixed cost and, more broadly, that there is no measurable value to the college experience outside of classes.
The colleges justify maintaining full tuition on the grounds that the quality of education will not change. But the quality of one’s classes is largely subjective: Students shape their own educational experiences to fit their interests and desired levels of effort. What are you choosing to study? How hard do you plan to work? How much will you engage with instructors? That students choose different educational paths and invest different levels of interest and effort already means that the quality of education is variable.
Students are not only paying for a certain quality of education; they are also paying for an experience. This includes students on financial aid or scholarship — they too entered an agreement that guaranteed them a certain experience. Perhaps if maintaining tuitions was necessary for universities to keep offering scholarships and financial aid packages, then the colleges would have a case. However, many of the institutions I mention above have hefty endowments, to say the least. If a global pandemic isn’t the time to tap into those funds, when is?
No college can exactly quantify the quality of the education it offers separate from the student experience, and therefore none can guarantee that it will maintain that quality of education across different teaching formats. That experience consists of intangible benefits in and outside of the classroom that are unattainable in a virtual setting.
The most immediate intangible benefit is the general ethos of a collegiate setting. Asking questions in professors’ offices, dining-hall conversations with classmates, guest speakers and expert panels, coffee with teaching assistants, etc. — all these have immense value. An online setting would render these opportunities almost inaccessible. As a fellow Harvard student said to me about the online setup, “Educators are necessarily less accessible and extracurriculars are nonexistent. Bad value for the same tuition.”
Another benefit is networking. Visiting alumni, fellows, and professors are valuable connections for students who will soon become young professionals. The kind of casual exposure to such individuals that leads to meaningful exchanges is nearly impossible through a computer screen.
Extracurriculars, as my classmate remarked, will also fall to the wayside. In my own experience, after the spring semester was interrupted by the pandemic, it became almost impossible to attend hours of virtual class and then meaningfully engage in online club activities. The odd formal tone of Zoom eclipsed the interpersonal value of the club community as well.
Finally, there is an undeniable social aspect of college. And it’s not all parties — learning how to live with your peers, interact with your professors over a meal, and sort out your daily affairs are integral aspects of the growth fostered by one’s college years. First-years will not even meet their classmates. While students are certainly sharpening their conference-call skills, many will lag behind in their social adjustment to the in-person coffee meeting or the ever-important skill of dinner conversation. With the click of a button, students can hide behind their computer screens, speaking only when they wish.
The loss of these benefits is the reason that a very small number of schools, including Princeton, have decided to decrease their tuitions. Citing the disadvantages of missing out on campus life, Princeton has offered a 10 percent discount. Although such discounts are small and offered by only a few schools, they clearly signal that being on campus matters and confers a benefit.
I noted that a class’s value partially depends on student initiative. To be fair, the same is true of on-campus opportunities — colleges don’t force students to network or attend clubs. It’s simply an option, but it’s an option implicitly tied to a college tuition. I’d struggle to find one of my peers who goes to college solely for the classes. I’d also struggle to find a college recruiter who didn’t boast the myriad of clubs for students to choose from on campus.
And perhaps there is reason to believe that online instruction is inherently less valuable. Up until 2020, the market for higher education certainly confirmed this assumption. Earning a bachelor’s degree at Harvard Extension School, which is online this upcoming year, costs about $60,000 total. That is about $10,000 more than the cost of just one year of tuition as a Harvard College student. Given the cost discrepancy, there must be an added value to attending Harvard College and living in Harvard Square. The administration has tried to dodge this comparison by mandating that each college course in the upcoming year require two to four hours of live interaction with instructors. But, somehow, those two to four hours do not seem to make up for a full tuition.
Online education has its own problems. Some students have environments that are not conducive to learning, whether for practical reasons — such as unreliable Wi-Fi or lack of a work space — or personal and emotional ones — such as abusive households or inconsistent access to meals and health care. Online education is also incredibly tedious: spending hours upon hours at a screen has ingrained “Zoom fatigue” into college students’ vernacular. One college student who experienced virtual schooling told me that, for someone who has trouble focusing, online learning makes learning incredibly difficult. Such students need to be in the classroom environment to remain engaged.
Given that the value of college classes relies on the very real value of campus engagement, it is simply illogical for colleges to charge full tuition for a very partial educational experience.