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What’s the Value of a Virtual Education?

By Rukmini Ganesh, M. Thorwald Larson, and Fernando Urbina
Rukmini Ganesh ’22, the UC Finance Committee Chair, is a Statistics concentrator living in Eliot House. M. Thorwald “Thor” Larson ’21, the UC Finance Committee Vice Chair, is an Applied Mathematics concentrator living in Lowell House. Fernando Urbina ’22, the UC Academic Life Committee Chair, is a Government concentrator living in Currier House.

Adjusting to the shift to remote education after the campus evacuation in March was difficult for everyone. Professors struggled to adapt to Zoom, club activity wrenched to a standstill, and student engagement essentially fell off a cliff.

Last Monday, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay offered us a vague promise of a partial return to campus. The plan highlighted by Dean Gay, which is one of three options still under consideration, would leave 60-70 percent of undergraduates fully remote for at least the fall semester. Furthermore, regardless of the decision about residential life, almost all classes will be fully remote, at least for the fall. Before further decisions are made, however, we need to seriously consider what our tuition is paying for and the resources needed to maintain the quality of our education.

There is no denying that online classes are of a lower quality than a traditional college education. A Brookings Institute study comparing the shift to online education at a four-year college concluded that the least-prepared students are disproportionately negatively impacted. On average, the drop in grading for a single course is equivalent to the shift from a B-minus to a C. In the long run, grade point averages in one subject area can drop by as much as 0.42.

Several structural issues remain in place moving into next semester, stemming from a lack of transparency. We know administrators like Registrar of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael P. Burke are working hard to address these concerns, but their plans and processes have not been made clear to students.

There’s been no word on how the College plans to address inequitable access to technology and WiFi among students. No one knows how decisions about who is permitted to return to campus will be made, engendering concerns of unfairness. Questions over how international students are to adapt to time-zone issues with live classes still haven’t been answered. And there’s been worryingly little clarity on the remote obligations of academic and thesis advisors.

Besides introducing discrepancies in living and learning environments, online education also deprives us of one of the biggest attractions of a Harvard education: the life-changing relationships we form with our classmates and professors.

Harvard requires students to participate in an unlimited meal plan because the “warmth and vibrance of our dining halls foster life-long friendship networks and engender the intimate feeling of family and community.” After spending even part of a semester remotely, we agree with Harvard: It’s impossible to replicate these substantive relationships that only occur in-person and on-campus.

But those life-long networks begin in the classroom, not the dining hall. And just as our meal plans pay for more than food, our tuition pays for more than classes.

Taking all of this together, it’s clear that an online education is simply worth less than a traditional one. But don’t take our word for it. Take Harvard’s.

An online undergraduate education looks remarkably similar to the Extension School, which offers an online degree program to students who are living at home and who often have significant career and family obligations. Based on the Undergraduate Council’s comparison of Extension School courses to Harvard College courses, there are at least 150 identical or nearly identical courses and at least 95 more that are roughly equivalent. These courses are a good representation of the breadth of Harvard’s course offerings, ranging from large lectures (Economics 10: “Principles of Economics”) to intimate seminars (“Arrivals: British Literature from 700 to 1700”).

For each of these identical classes, a remote Harvard College student paying full tuition last year would have paid over $5,966.25 per class, while students at the Extension School paid just $1,840 per class — a mere 31 percent of our tuition.

What does this $4,126.25 per class tuition premium pay for? It can’t be resources. Extension School students are offered a number of resources also offered to Harvard College students, including personalized academic and career advising, access to the Writing Center and Harvard libraries, and several clubs that overlap with undergraduate student organizations. Any additional resources offered to undergraduates (House tutoring systems, Counseling and Mental Health Services, Harvard University Health Services, etc.) all come out of the Student Services Fee and various health-related fees separate from our tuition.

So, the $4,126.25 tuition premium can only pay for two intangible things: the brand of Harvard College and the “life-changing moments and conversations” we have with our peers.

Shifting online might not reduce the value of the Harvard College brand, but it does severely diminish, if not fully impede, our ability to make connections. Though it’s hard to place a numerical value on these intangibles, if we value both equally, it’s only ethical for Harvard College to reimburse students approximately $2,000 per class, or $16,000 for the academic year — one half of the tuition premium.

Ultimately, if Harvard cannot guarantee the essentials of an equitable, high-quality education — a fair and transparent return-to-campus lottery, equal access to classes regardless of students’ location, a solution to WiFi inequity, accountable and accessible advising, and College-led facilitation of student engagement and interaction — we believe that a tuition reimbursement of approximately $16,000 for the upcoming academic year is the next best course of action.

We chose Harvard not just because it has the best education in the world, but also because it has the best people. It is our hope that, even remotely, every undergraduate continues to get the best of both.

Rukmini Ganesh ’22, the UC Finance Committee Chair, is a Statistics concentrator living in Eliot House. M. Thorwald “Thor” Larson ’21, the UC Finance Committee Vice Chair, is an Applied Mathematics concentrator living in Lowell House. Fernando Urbina ’22, the UC Academic Life Committee Chair, is a Government concentrator living in Currier House. The authors are writing on behalf of the Undergraduate Council. This statement was endorsed and passed unanimously by the Council on Wednesday, June 17, 2020.

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