Zooming Into Harvard Isn’t Worth the Debt, So I’m Deferring for a Year

Ill-informed planning and shameful pricing has exposed a hierarchy of priorities for U.S. colleges. Students aren’t on top.

A student on the campus of Harvard University on July 14. Photo: Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

On July 6, I was working as a bagger at a local grocery store. The Covid-19 pandemic had leveled my summer plans. The paid internship I’d lined up at the 3D Tissue Bioprinting Lab at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, was canceled. Instead, I spent 25 hours a week pushing shopping carts in from the broiling parking lot, cleaning toilets, and bagging endless hard seltzers for bronzed students on their way to a packed beach.

Sinking into the break room couch on my precious 15-minute break, I opened my phone to find an email I had been dreading. “Dear members of the Harvard FAS community,” the message from administrators began, addressing students within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “After careful deliberation, and informed by extensive input from our community, we write today to announce our plans.” Laid out before me was one of the most stringent reopening plans of any U.S. college at the time: fully online classes, restricted travel, 40% campus density. My dejection turned to anger as I read further. Despite the many disruptions, Harvard’s sticker price of $54,000 in tuition and fees would remain the same for the academic year. My plan was always to pay for undergrad with student loans and help from my parents, but going into debt for online classes isn’t what I signed up for. A week later, I opted to defer my enrollment by a year, officially entering the Harvard class of 2025.

Harvard’s plan seemed somehow extreme compared to those put forth by the University of Pennsylvania or Duke University, which looked to bring all students back to campus for a hybrid in-person and online experience. Others, like the University of Virginia, took an almost reckless approach by adopting slight modifications to their normal operations. To anyone outside the bubble of wishful thinking inhabited by students and university board members, it was clear these plans were textbook cases of motivated reasoning, completely defying the reality of the situation. On the day Harvard made its announcement, almost 47,000 new cases of Covid-19 were identified in the United States. Conversely, across the Atlantic and almost two months prior, on May 20, Cambridge University made the call to conduct virtual classes until the summer of 2021. That day, cases in the United Kingdom rose by just over 2,400.

It took just a matter of weeks for universities around the United States to issue a mass walk-back. A New York Times survey in late July found that even before most campuses had opened, more than 6,600 coronavirus cases had been linked to U.S. colleges. A belated, predictable, and infuriating wave of announcements soon came flooding in. Georgetown, Princeton, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, and others announced that, their hands now tied, they would be forced to conduct their fall semesters remotely. In a superlative act of kindness, several universities even announced a tuition freeze, opting to forgo their routine yearly 3% to 4% tuition price hike. How generous.

Those unfamiliar with the complex financial aid formula may incorrectly assume that a remote college experience presents the opportunity to save some money on a year of college — but it actually depends. Students like me, whose financial aid award exceeds the price of room and board, see no significant change in net price, for college pricing has little bearing on the services one is receiving but instead the maximum calculated sum of money that one’s family can “afford.”

Colleges scrambled to justify the asking price with a series of flawed arguments. One of the most common of these appeals to the ends: Since students will receive the same degree at the end of their four years as everyone else, tuition should remain unchanged. This argument is uncomfortable for several reasons, but most significantly for reducing a college degree to a payment plan. Students don’t attend college — especially expensive private institutions — simply for a certificate of qualification; included are four years of exchanging perspectives, socializing, and networking that can provide students unique boosts and opportunities when entering the job market.

Another appeals to the bottom line: Since colleges must cover the same operating costs, the price must remain the same. I understand compensating faculty and staff, whose roles have proven at least as crucial and difficult during this time. But even if I had opted to move into the dorms this month, I would have found myself unable to utilize university facilities such as libraries, practice rooms, laboratories, museums, gyms, and the iconic Annenberg dining hall in any meaningful way. Unless colleges are willing to admit that none of my tuition dollars contribute to the use of those facilities, it seems misguided to charge me to keep them open. I would never pay the $150 ticket fee at Disney World for a remote experience simply because the rides still needed to be maintained — Disney is not a charity, and neither are colleges.

To give credit where credit is due, Harvard seems to have seen the writing on the wall and generously invited students to defer their enrollment back in July. Some don’t have the same luxury, such as Princetonians, who risk finding themselves forced to defer for two years to offset the incoming class size (an issue I’ve written about before). With new clusters of Covid-19 recently being identified at college campuses in my home state of North Carolina, a nationwide remote campus experience seems to be on the horizon, and if you’re like me, you’re wondering how we got it so wrong. The answer lies in why Cambridge was able to comfortably and logically move its education online while offering the same $11,700 government-subsidized price tag (about one-fifth of a year’s tuition at Harvard). When the number one priority is cash flow, student and faculty health can only come second, at best.

Sellers Hill is freelance writer, photographer, and member of the Harvard Class of 2025 from Wilmington, NC.

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