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Columns

The Cost of a Harvard Education

By Patrick M. Magee, Contributing Opinion Writer
Patrick M. Magee ’21 is a joint Physics and Philosophy concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

On July 6, University President Lawrence S. Bacow, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay, and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana sent out a 3,500-word email announcing the school’s plan for the fall semester. The first paragraph confirmed what most students had already suspected: that classes, due to the ongoing pandemic, would stay online for the remainder of 2020. More surprising was the single-sentence announcement buried halfway through the message. Despite the move online, Harvard’s tuition and fees would remain “as announced”—at $53,968.

The memes practically wrote themselves. One contrasted Harvard’s “annual subscription fee” with that of Netflix ($107.88); another compared the online class regimen to the Extension School. Most, of course, were tongue in cheek. As many students pointed out, it wasn’t as if Harvard was forcing people to pay $53,968 for online classes: if anything, taking time off was encouraged. And due to financial aid, only a minority of students would end up paying the full amount.

Still, the memes hid a kernel of truth. No matter how you hedge it, slapping a price tag of $53,968 on Zoom calls and problem sets seems patently absurd.

Yet the reason for this absurdity has little to do with the learning gap between in-person and online instruction. Actually, I’m skeptical that there’s much of a difference at all: many students preferred to watch recordings even when lectures were still in person, and most professors have taken measures to increase their availability to students, even relative to live instruction.

The absurdity, rather, highlights what has long been a growing divide: between the reason that colleges charge fees and the reason that students pay them. During the pandemic, the former has barely changed at all. Online or not, there are still professors to pay, and a salary cut is hard to justify, especially given that many have seen their work increase. (One of my professors, for example, split a lecture-style class into two seminars, effectively doubling his workload.) Given that the cost of classes has barely changed, Harvard’s decision not to lower tuition could even be construed as generous. To students, however, the picture is very different. In adjudicating Harvard’s decision, most find the cost of classes irrelevant — because classes weren’t what they were paying for in the first place.

The days are long past when attending a university was the only way for students to immerse themselves in the latest scholarship. In fact, as many can tell you, it’s often not even the best way. For introductory topics, the Internet boasts a staggering collection of videos and lecture notes from distinguished scholars, allowing students to choose whatever style and pace suits them. Websites like arXiv provide open access to millions of cutting-edge academic papers, often before they’re even published. And lest anyone think this content inferior to an actual college course, consider the over 2,000 MIT classes that have been uploaded to OpenCourseWare, usually including problem sets and exams. As these resources grow, the disparity between online and university-based learning materials will continue to shrink.

Of course, there are plenty of things you can’t get online. Harvard’s steep fees unlock key opportunities for students to conduct research, in addition to being mentored by leading scholars. And most students benefit from the structure of a college class. But valuable as these opportunities may be, they do little to justify the hefty price tag. A student who spent anywhere close to $53,698 on these amenities in any other context — a summer program, say — would be thought unspeakably lavish. And anyone who skipped out on research or mentorship opportunities during college would hardly be thought to have wasted tens of thousands of dollars.

Rather, so the cliché goes, the true value of college is outside the classroom: in social interactions, extracurricular activities, and (yes) networking. Along with a college diploma and GPA, these open up a slew of opportunities inaccessible to even the most talented high school graduates.

The irony, of course, is that none of these is more than tangentially related to the cost of tuition. Take the “outside the classroom” benefits. It’s true that the extracurricular and networking opportunities depend on the college putting together a class — but what’s the cost of this, exactly? (“Funding the admissions committee,” according to a friend.) Regarding the bachelor’s degree and GPA, what expenses are there besides paying administrators and graders — the latter of whom are often students themselves, with bargain-level salaries? And while prestige is certainly a factor in the case of a Harvard degree, how much of this is actually due to coursework, as opposed to the approval of the aforementioned admissions committee? Tied as they are to the college experience, none of these factors comprise more than a fraction of its overall cost.

Now, some readers might claim I’m being too cynical or revisionary. While a college degree may derive a portion of its value from these factors, surely the majority is due to the educational benefits, rather than any ancillary features. Few students, after all, ever claim to be “transformed” by online classes. Yet if this were the case, we would expect the economic value of college to be roughly commensurate with the amount a student learns. And this transparently isn’t true: students who complete three out of four years of college make far less than 75 percent the income of a typical college grad. And according to an 2011 article in the Economist, over a third of students fail to “demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during their four years — with the remainder improving by less than half of a standard deviation.

None of this is to say that universities aren’t hugely important institutions, or that they should solely be directed towards economic productivity. As a philosophy concentrator, I’d be the first to admit that there’s immense value in learning for learning’s sake. But with millions of Americans strapped with crushing student loans, the gap between the costs and benefits of a college degree should give us pause. If the primary expense is coursework, and the payoff credentials, extracurriculars, and networking, one wonders if there’s a way to give Americans the latter without the cost of the former—especially when the former is no longer essential to education.

Patrick M. Magee ’21 is a joint Physics and Philosophy concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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