Harvard and elite universities like it have decided that the chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic presents an opportunity to rob our nation’s higher education students blind – of both their tuition fees and the unique personal experiences and interactions that a college education promises. Other elite institutions are engineering the next academic year to retain just enough of a fig leaf of in-person instruction – as little as 20 percent at UCLA, for example – to minimize the risks having to refund tuition, see a drop-off in enrollment, or, perhaps scariest of all, see their lucrative, full-freight foreign students transfer to other schools rather than have to go back to their home countries to study online.
As then-Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said in a 1987 New York Times opinion, our once-hallowed top academic institutions are “under-accountable and under-productive. Our students deserve better than this. They deserve an education commensurate with the large sums paid by parents and taxpayers and donors.”
Harvard University has decided to not heed Bennett’s wise words. Instead, it has announced that even though “all course instruction” for undergraduate and graduate students will be performed online for the 2020-2021 academic year, undergraduate students will be paying full tuition costs – a whopping $49,653. While some students may rejoice over the prospects of boosting their GPAs through “easy A’s” acquired from online courses, study after study has shown that a Zoom classroom is less effective than it’s brick and mortar counterpart at providing students with a mastery of their course material. Any parent of a high school kid stuck at home during the past spring could tell you this. Yet, Harvard, despite the fact that it has partnered with edX to provide free online courses in the past, thinks it is appropriate to charge full-price? Too bad Harvard doesn’t have a $40 billion endowment to see it through times like these – oh wait, it does.
Disadvantaged students, the identity groups that the progressive Harvard faculty claims are at the forefront of their consciousness now more than ever, are the least served by American universities shameless greed. Not only are these students forced to pay the same price (after scholarships and loans) for online classes as they would pay to attend classes on campus, they will now be placed in a learning environment where they will be more likely to underachieve. They will be unlikely to be provided with the campus resources to help them adjust to these difficulties, much less be invited back to campus anytime soon for a chance to thrive in a different setting.
In what seems to be a good-faith attempt at keeping those chosen few who will come back to campus in the fall safe, Harvard has unveiled a regimen of testing, testing, testing. Beyond having a cotton swab jammed up their noses a few inches every three days (watch out for the piercings!), how Harvard plans on providing the same level of benefits this year as it would to students enjoying life on campus in a world without coronavirus remains a mystery. If ever there were evidence that entrée to our nation’s top ivory towers is not about high-quality education, but rather credentials and connections, this is it – Harvard knows parents and students will gladly pay the price for whatever shadow-puppet version of college is on offer, so long as it comes with the crimson and gold diploma at the end.
Harvard is not alone. Yale and Princeton have announced similar capacity restrictions on campus, and Dartmouth is moving to 50% capacity for the fall semester. Other schools are being coy, demanding deposits now and giving the disappointing details later. The more certain a school is that its captive audience will pay for the ticket and clap at the end, the earlier it is announcing its truncated, counterfeit version of the college experience.
But all is not lost – maybe there is a silver lining to trading safe spaces for sanitized ones in academia. The pervasive illiberality once contained to the lecture halls has mutated and spread, now wreaking havoc on our society through cancel culture. It has manifested through tearing down statues of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington and forcing out or silencing corporate leaders, gym instructors, writers who dare to call for more tolerance, and more. Indeed, almost no one is safe from the mob once confined to the environs of gender studies classes or the International House. The groundwork for this “far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance,” as President Trump correctly pointed out on July 3, was initially laid on campus by leftists in academia that almost universally acknowledge Howard Zinn’s anti-American “A People’s History of the United States,” Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” and Mark Bray’s “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook” as preeminent, scholarly works of coruscating brilliance rather than the sham, pseudo-intellectual rubbish (or worse) that they are.
The virus of campus nihilism spreads more easily in the moist, confined spaces of the academic bubble. With distancing, living at home or off-campus away from the intellectual predations and performative rituals of intersectional wokeness on campus, could it be possible to slow, or even arrest, the spread of social and mental rot emanating from the ivory tower? Maybe learning nothing at all, even doing so remotely while mortgaging your future, would be better than receiving the genuine version of pseudo-education offered by the Ivy Leagues and other top academic paragons?
Better yet – what if canny students and their parents, decided it would be a good time to take a gap year after the stressful and disappointing spring of 2020, delay college by a year, get a job, pursue a passion, practice their craft, their sport, their art, their dream, save the money, maybe even make some, and go to college in the fall of 2021 with more choices, maturity, self-confidence, independence, and herd immunity to the inevitable torrent of progressive clichés and relativism masquerading as real learning that they must pass through to get to the other side as credentialed functioning adults with access to the best jobs, careers, and opportunities. Maybe coronavirus is the reset button our students and academic institutions need, if only they were brave enough to push it and see what happens.