A bummer year for American colleges, exacerbated by a new government policy

My Ph.D. alma mater Harvard has announced its attendance policy for the 2020-2021 academic year. As the articles below report (click on screenshots), at that school every single class, large or small, will be taught online. Further, only 40% of the undergraduate students will be allowed on campus at one time. In the fall semester, the first-years (freshmen) will be on campus, as well as those with a pressing need to be on campus to further their education. The first-years will then return home and be replaced in the spring semester by seniors.  The article below doesn’t say whether second- and third-year students will also be present in the spring, but with 40% attendance tops, it seems unlikely.

Nevertheless, Harvard is charging the students full freight: the year’s tuition, about $54,000—a total bummer for students who might not even be on campus. While they’ll save meal and housing fees, and Harvard is offering, as a sop, two free summer-school courses in 2021 for those students who are away from campus the full academic year, that’s not much of an incentive.

In addition, every Harvard student will be tested for coronavirus before arriving on campus, and those living in dorms will be tested every three days.  There will also be social distancing and a change in dining-hall policy to a “touchless food pick-up system.” No more pigging out at all-you-can-eat dining halls!

While Harvard is clearly doing this to avoid the possibility of a viral outbreak on campus, it’s a pretty lousy way to go to school. In my conversations with professors and their students throughout the U.S., I haven’t met a single one who prefers online learning (all things equal) over in-person teaching. I wouldn’t either, though I don’t teach any longer.  And what about those science classes that require labs? There’s no way one can re-create the lab experience online. What about art classes where you create your own works?

The chance to socialize with other students is also much reduced. No parties, social distancing of everyone (perhaps wearing masks), and no discussions with other students, even in small seminars.

I conclude two things. First, were I a Harvard student, I’d take a year off rather than pay $54,000 for a much degraded academic experience. Presumably things will be back to normal in 2021, though if the coronavirus isn’t tamed by then, all bets are off. Some schools (see NYT article below) are penalizing students who take a sabbatical, saying that they might not get dormitory housing if they return.

Second, Harvard has some nerve to charge students full tuition for a year like this, especially when Harvard is so wealthy, with an endowment of $41 billion. Now I know they don’t like to touch the principal, but these are extraordinary circumstances. If Harvard halved its tuition, it would cost them $190 million—less than 5% of its endowment.

It’s especially hard on foreign students, as the U.S. government has just decreed that student visas will not be given to those who plan to attend U.S. universities where all courses are online. And if they’re in the U.S. already, they must return to their home countries. This will affect all foreign students at Harvard, though not at schools like the University of Chicago, where small classes will be taught in person. (Here are the new federal guidelines).

This, too, seems unfair. If American students can come to campus, why not foreign ones? After all, letting 40% of the students return to campus each semester presumes that there is some benefit to being there. And although the feds say this is due to the pandemic, it can’t be useful at Harvard, where all entering students are tested for Covid-19 and then tested every 3 days. It seems to me that a). for students already here, there’s no pandemic rationale for making them go home, and b.) the rules don’t work at Harvard, where all entering students are tested for coronavirus and then tested regularly. Why couldn’t this be done for all students? My view is that the xenophobic Trump administraion is simply doing this as a way to expel foreigners.

Other schools are a bit less restrictive, as this new article in the NYT describes:

As I’ve said, at the University of Chicago all students can come back, but there will be a mixture of remote and in-person classes, students will have to live in single rooms (first- and second-years are required to live in dorms), meals will be takeaway, and the last bit of the fall quarter will be held remotely. We’ll be hard pressed to find accommodations for our 6,500 undergrads.

At Yale, nearly all courses will be taught remotely, but small seminars can still be in-person, allowing foreign students to return. All student will be tested for coronavirus. And everyone will be charged full tuition—about the same as Harvard’s.

Princeton is one of the few Ivies to give a tuition discount: a full 10% off, making it $48,501 for the full year instead of nearly $54,000. How generous! All students will be on campus for only half the year: first- and third-years in fall, first-years and seniors in the spring (this is, of course, to allow “live” graduation).

Finally, Cornell is allowing all students to return to campus, though there’s still a hybrid model of online and in-person classes.  This is also true of Penn.

All in all, college students are getting a bad break this year. My view, which you should take with a grain of salt, is that students should take a year off and do something rewarding: foreign or domestic service, volunteer work, and other forms of “life experience” that are also educational—and would also be safe.

By now, all professors and students know that online learning is a lousy way to get a college education, and for the sciences it’s especially tough. I know that colleges want to keep operating, keep their students safe, but also haul in the dosh, yet this way of dealing with it gives the students a raw deal. At least the schools could halve their tuition! The charging of full tuition for a year in which you’re constrained to take all classes online (as at Harvard), and be on campus only half the academic year, seems unconscionable.



  1. dd
    Posted July 7, 2020 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Would anyone like to speculate as to why so many rich schools, especially the mega-rich Ivies, won’t give students a tuition break?

    Is it because they know that so many are so rich that they are price indifferent?

    • EdwardM
      Posted July 7, 2020 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      That may be, but I wonder…most of the folks I know who went to Ivies (a highly limited dataset to be sure, so giant grain of salt…) didn’t pay full tuition. None of the folks I knew could have been considered rich – they were accomplished students (unlike me). In fact, most paid very little – scholarships and tuition waivers. So it may be that while some will have to pay full tuition, many won’t.

    • Posted July 7, 2020 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      Can’t be the only reason. Even the “richer” state universities are refusing to reduce tuition, although some of them are waiving non-resident portions of tuition. Then again, state unis don’t have the same level of endowment. Over the summmer, I know that UT Austin offered a 15% discount which significantly boosted enrollment, thereby increasing the number of students at the same total cost. It would be an interesting experiment for other schools to try over the Fall for online classes. A lot more people would just take the online classes if they were cheaper.

    • enl
      Posted July 7, 2020 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      In part, they are concerned about hitting the endowment. In part, they have lost other income streams (Harvard, for example, is a large real estate holder). And, I would guess, in part because the aid structure was adjusted beginning about a decade ago, and many students pay nothing near the the sticker price. A couple years ago, I had a student in my job-one (teacher) world go to MIT, as it was less money, for her, than Rutgers as an in-state student, all things considered. I have had a number of other students make similar decisions.

      For example, a student from a family with two kids in college, $150K income, and no investment income or other large assets (excluding a home htey live in) will pay about 19K. See: https://college.harvard.edu/financial-aid/net-price-calculator.

    • eric
      Posted July 7, 2020 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      I don’t see how their costs go down, so how can they afford to cut their revenue?

      The major costs for most classes are going to be labor (i.e. professor and TA salaries) and building upkeep. None of those change. Food and lodging should obviously drop to zero if a student isn’t living in a dorm or using a meal plan, and there are some additional expenses associated with specialty courses (labs, phys ed type classes). But realistically, the sort of cost cuts available to on-line universities (i.e. no rent or brick and mortar upkeep, cheaper salaried professors) aren’t realistic for a brick and mortar University like Harvard going online temporarily.

      I agree with JAC that the ethical thing to do is charge less given the lesser educational experience, but as he says about Harvard, that’s likely going to involve a university taking a loss/spending it’s reserve for the year. It’s not the case (I don’t think) that the lesser experience equates to lower costs so the University could reduce costs and still maintain the same profit margin.

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted July 7, 2020 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    The new govt. policies by the Trump administration is going to remove many foreign students period and that is what they are after. Shutting down all immigration is their goal.

    $54,000 bucks a year. I’m pretty sure the 4 years of college I got was somewhat less than that. I guess the overhead is much more these days. The football coach’s salaries can run into the millions.

    • Posted July 7, 2020 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      “The football coach’s salaries can run into the millions.”

      Yes. College football coaches are the highest paid state employees around the country.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted July 7, 2020 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        All the while running minor leagues for which the NFL pays nothing, and for which the athletes themselves risk head-injury and limb while sharing in none of the bounty.

        Some deal.

        • EdwardM
          Posted July 7, 2020 at 11:43 am | Permalink

          “…sharing in none of the bounty.”

          Not true. In most football programs the players get athletic scholarships, sometimes (especially at top football schools) it is 100%. They get a free college education. That, at some schools, amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars, money not available to non-athletes.

          I know I will be attacked for this, but facts are facts; they get paid for their participation in the sport – they get tuition waivers that non-athletes are not eligible for. On top of that, student athletes are also eligible for the same scholarships based on academic success or financial needs as everyone else.

          In top football programs a case could be made that they should be paid more since some programs generate enormous revenue for the schools, though surprisingly few programs actually do. Further, although very few of these athletes wind up in the professional ranks, all of them that do got 4+ years of paid training for their profession.

          I strongly support athletic scholarships – anything that can help people get a college education I am 100% for. But it simply isn’t true that college athletes don’t get a financial benefit for playing.

          • savage
            Posted July 7, 2020 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

            Athletic scholarships are a bad joke in any university. They increase tuition for the students who actually care about studying and suggest that pure scholars are uninteresting, if not downright inferior to people who specialize in the mindnumbing entertainment that is spectator sports.

            Should be scrapped in my opinion, along with any discrimination in student admissions because people list the “wrong” sport in their application.

            • EdwardM
              Posted July 7, 2020 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

              This kind of sneering at people who want the opportunities a college education confers is ugly and the arguments tendentious.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted July 7, 2020 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

            What are the graduation rates at the NCAA’s top-rated programs (especially for minority athletes)? And how many of those schools have exaggerated graduation rates because they set up systems to push the ballplayers through, rather than to ensure they get an actual “education”? And, for those who don’t graduate, what’s a partial education before a ballplayer’s eligibility runs out worth?

            The athletes in those programs are professionals in all but name only; they should be compensated accordingly.

            I’d like to see an experiment where the NFL and NBA had actual minor league systems, where prospects would be paid like pros, according to their on-field or on-court skills and their ability to attract fans (and where those athletes would, of course, be free to spend their salaries on obtaining college educations in the off-season, should they see fit to do so). Let’s see what happens to the football and basketball programs at the universities currently exploiting these athletes then.

            • EdwardM
              Posted July 7, 2020 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

              All of this is true and or good questions but none of it is a rebuttal. All you and Savage above have done is point out possible flaws and problems with athletic scholarships and university sports programs – and many of these things ought to be addressed. But none of it rebuts the fact that most college football players get a financial benefit from playing. Is it adequate? Depends. Does it result in good outcomes for the student? Depends. Are colleges shits for what they do to athletes? Depends.

            • eric
              Posted July 7, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

              Let’s see what happens to the football and basketball programs at the universities currently exploiting these athletes then.

              Well, if Baseball is any model, college teams won’t disappear. They’ll remain pretty healthy, in fact. Though you’ll get athletes hoping to make the minors rather than athletes who should be in the minors.

              Tennis might be another somewhat relevant example. Most goal-of-going-pro players don’t attend college, but for some, that’s still a path. And the top University tennis programs often feed their players into the ATP and WTA. The legendary Bryan Brothers going to Stanford would be a good example. Stanford’s program does just fine without any need for a collegiate tennis league the equivalent of college basketball. I expect Duke’s basketball program would similarly do just fine if there was a minor league basketball system rather than the sport using the NCAA.

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted July 7, 2020 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

                In other words, a return to the days of the student-athlete, as opposed to quasi-professional (but grossly underpaid) major-sports teams with auxiliary universities attached?

                Right now you have young men who are elite football and basketball players graduating from high school hoping for professional career, many of whom have no interest in (let alone any academic aptitude for) attending college, but who are left with no other option if they wish to continue pursuing their chosen sport.

                All I’m saying is: let’s give them a choice, rather than have them be unconscionably exploited (often at great risk to their physical well-being and to their potential career opportunities) for the unjustifiable monetary gain of universities and professional coaching staffs.

              • EdwardM
                Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:45 am | Permalink

                Ken. You asked what the graduation rate is for top football schools. It’s a good question, so I did the googles.

                Athletes, including football players, graduate at higher rates than the general student population.

                First, the graduation rate (for up to six years of school) for non-athletes is about 60%.

                For division 1 athletes over all its 88%. http://www.ncaa.org/themes-topics/graduation-success-rate-gsr

                But what about top football programs? For bowl-bound teams;

                The Institute for Diversity and Ethics and Sport shows in its report that the overall football Graduation Success Rate (GSR) is up to 79 percent, climbing from 77 percent in 2017. The study found that white football players had a 90 percent graduation rate, while black players were at 73 percent.


    • phoffman56
      Posted July 7, 2020 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      My 7 years, including Ph.D., came to less than $2,000 total, and that’s even $CDN! But 3 of those years at the end in Britain cost $0.00.

      But that was about 99 years ago, so, with inflation, the $2000 is now closer to $20, 000 than to either $2,000 or $200,000.

      And education then and there, just like public health and hospitals and prisons, here and now, was not basically regarded as an opportunity, where I’m from, to make a shitload of money. Drumpf University anyone?

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 7, 2020 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

        Sadly, people are expecting universities to spit them out at the end right into a high paying job. Parents want them to be sausage factories to give their kids a guaranteed future career and universities have simply always been set up to educate only. I believe in the education part. Figure out a career later once you’re sufficiently educated.

        • phoffman56
          Posted July 7, 2020 at 12:48 pm | Permalink


          Even many years ago, and quite understandably, parents often tended to be keen on job training versus basic education. My daughter ended up as a philosophy prof, so I was not such a typical parent, but given my academic interests that is hardly surprising. My parents had realized there was no way they were going to influence me in the least on this. My interests changed gradually with time, but I was, as it seems to always happen, very lucky with timing, so simply following what interested me ended up making job search and even tenure very unproblematic.

          Even for undergrad engineering there does seem to be evidence that looking too much towards the quick, hopefully lucrative, job ends up not being a material advantage over the subsequent several decades. But that’s a case where I’m agnostic, what with difficulty collecting statistics. One thing for sure is that computer students could never just go to work for 20 years doing the same ‘old’ thing they learned in the more ‘practical’ courses. And for those without enough basics it would be more difficult for them to keep educating themselves in brand new stuff coming out every few months, e.g. programming languages, search software, symbolic computation, the various kinds of artificial intelligence in recent decades, actually a major come-down from what that AI meant in the ’50s and ’60s, starting with Turing.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 7, 2020 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

            Yeah and a lot of the jobs in the IT field and elsewhere don’t exist yet. When I graduated, the Web wasn’t even commercial yet but for fun I had taught myself HTML and that’s how I got my first real job. I also find it funny how so many students go in saying things like, “I’m going to be psychiatrist” or “I’m going to be a lawyer”. Why don’t we finish the first day of first year first, get through a year of university and see how you feel? The parents seem convinced of it too with them repeating their kids’ ambitions (one wonders, when this happens, if it is really the kids’ ambitions alone).

  3. Claudia Heilke
    Posted July 7, 2020 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    When do the sophmores get to go at Princeton?

  4. phoffman56
    Posted July 7, 2020 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    “…with an endowment of $41 billion… it would cost them $190 million—less than 5% of its endowment.”

    less than ½ of 1% unless I’m going senile??

    If right, then Jerry’s complaint is 10 times stronger.

    • phoffman56
      Posted July 7, 2020 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Of course “less than 5%” is not incorrect, just improvable.

      Brings to mind inequality talk which really is false, like the stupid claim that the limit of a sequence is ‘a number which the sequence gets closer and closer to’.

      ½,⅔,3/4,4/5… etc. gets closer and closer to 113, but it’s limit is not 113, is it?

      • phoffman56
        Posted July 7, 2020 at 11:02 am | Permalink

        ‘its’, not “it’s”. I am going senile.

  5. Posted July 7, 2020 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Science labs will be hit badly. NSF/DOE/DOD/NIH/DARPA/etc. funding labs need a few undergrads, not to mention armies of graduates. If the university fails to attract them back safely, how will the professors cope? I think most of this has very little to do with tuition.

    Then there is the athletics. Ivy has no athletic scholarships, but most universities have them and so those students are slightly if not completely immune to tuition. But will the universities have sports at all? Some are putting them in the fall. Again, science and sports are going to struggle without kids on campus.

    I am not too upset about the money. It’s the testing. Every university and every school in America needs their kids back. Online is abysmal and is not work and will crucify us all. We need kids back in school and we need as much testing. Everyday if needed, every student who wants it.

    Campuses should all organize for COVID positive cases and have them self-quarantined in special dorms. HS and MS can do similar things, but those will be harder to contain.

  6. Jon Gallant
    Posted July 7, 2020 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Our host’s suggestion that students are better advised to just take the year off is excellent. In fact, quite aside from the pandemic situation, the old European custom of a wanderjahr has always been a great idea. I regret that I didn’t do that myself, although we academics do try to make up for it with our fine custom of incessant conferences and symposia (see David Lodge’s hilarious novel “Small World”).

    Alas, both forms of travel will soon be distinctly limited for Americans. As the
    covid-19 resurgence here proceeds, every other country on earth is likely to bar American travelers from entry, as the EU already does. American students will have to spend their wanderjahr visiting Texas, and those jolly international conferences will have to be sited in Oklahoma or Death Valley.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 7, 2020 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      A few of my friends’ kids are taking a gap year. I think if it were me I’d just get through the first year online and see how it goes unless they have some decent gainful employment that can help them save up which is hard to come by these days. So, there isn’t much to do in a pandemic if you can’t find work but if you can, it might be worth it.

      • Posted July 7, 2020 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

        Given the abysmal quality of online teaching, and its palpable inferiority to the real thing, I wouldn’t want to take a single semester online. You’re sacrificing a LOT of education for each semester you take e-courses. I’d rather do something else.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 7, 2020 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

          Maybe you’ve only experienced abysmal ones. Some are pretty good.

          • merilee
            Posted July 7, 2020 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

            Your student Mohammed Noor taught an excellent online genetics course from Duke!

    • EdwardM
      Posted July 7, 2020 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      My neighbors kids took a “gap” year, one literally – she needed to work at the Gap so as to afford her tuition at the end of her year. Her brother needed two years as he had trouble finding a job that paid enough. Both are still in school and working to try to stay in.

    • phoffman56
      Posted July 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Right now Harvard students cannot easily “wanderjahr” over to the Alps or Paris, but UToronto students can, if they’ll risk the plane ride and other crowds or don’t mind corona virus hospitalization in Italy.

      Actually on the latter, specifically the carbon pollution from airlines going down now but only for awhile unfortunately, I was thinking that maybe the day will come when my wife and I drive over to St. John’s in an electric car, get an electric boat to Reykjavik (2 days each), rent an electric car in Iceland, maybe then another electric boat to Norway. I’d likely need to live past 111 for that to happen! The car insurance people might balk at that.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 7, 2020 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

        It’s only 2 days by boat from Nfld to Iceland?

        • phoffman56
          Posted July 7, 2020 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

          Good point!

          It’s just over 2500 km, St. John’s to Reykjavik, so you’d need a damn fast boat to do that in 50 hours (average > 50 km/hr., or 27 knots).

          But 3 nights and 2 days, 20 years from now, who knows, sounds not totally unreasonable.
          Maybe a very large catamaran!

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 7, 2020 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

            I seriously got excited and thought it would be a great trip!

        • phoffman56
          Posted July 7, 2020 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

          And if they drained the ocean, you’d be driving against the ‘continental spread’. According to the latest calculations, that would cost you 1/200 of one second. (Just a very bad joke, I didn’t calculate.)

  7. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 7, 2020 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    My university is doing online only unless you are in nursing or some of the other health programs. Tuition is frozen for Canadian students right now (international is probably another story). There are a few international students, I believe, in residence right now because they couldn’t go home but no students will be in residents and the deposits have been refunded. They aren’t sure about the winter semester yet as it depends on what is going on with the virus.

    To go on campus as faculty or staff, you need to fill in a form stating why you need to be there (I think only if you’re staying there not picking stuff up). If you’re in the hospital of course you need all the forms and covid checks at entrance and you need to show your staff ID. For researchers, you need to explain why you need to be on campus and then you are approved. You are not to do anything except what you are approved for (don’t wander around the buildings).

    I know a lot of work has been put in with faculty and staff making the online courses much better. When we had to suddenly stay home, faculty had to scramble to get the students through their year but I think it will be a lot better now.

    They are working with some international students (we get a lot of Gulf State and Saudis for the hospital) but it’s their government, not ours, that is restricting flights. Not sure where things are on this.

  8. Derek Freyberg
    Posted July 7, 2020 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    I think that universities with any significant number of foreign students should develop a plan (to be applied to all students, but for the benefit of the foreign students, primarily) that ensures that all students spend some time on campus even if most of the learning is online, just to ensure that the foreign students are not unceremoniously turfed out by this benighted (plus your choice of less polite adjectives) administration. The policy is incredibly short-sighted, and frustrating it for long enough for the administration to change is a laudable goal – not to mention that it keeps the tuition flowing!
    But I’m not sure that a year off is a solution for students, talking primarily about US students now. Normally, most students would be spending this summer working and saving for the fall – that’s not happening to nearly the usual extent, as many of the jobs have evaporated. And I don’t think that there will be jobs available in the fall for those students who do take a year off – they will have been snatched up by the COVID-unemployed. The wanderjahr is all very well, but it is only possible if you either already have money or can find short-term work along the way to pay the bills. There’ll be some in category 1, but I think circumstances rule out category 2.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 7, 2020 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Yeah I thought the same – a gap year in the pandemic with no employment isn’t very productive & even if you just want to relax because you have money, you can’t travel.

  9. Charles A Sawicki
    Posted July 7, 2020 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    In the cases where all learning is on-line, students will be taking simulated labs on-line. None of the real world messy problems of an in person lab, thus little useful experience. Generally these are awful and no substitute for hands-on work.

  10. Posted July 7, 2020 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    Nobody is talking about it but there’s an another aspect to all this: Assortative mating opportunities.
    Not just “getting laid”, though there’s nothing wrong with that, but life partners.

    For eg: I met my wife (now 25 years of almost wedded bliss 😉 at Georgetown U. as an (Australian) exchange student in 1992.

    It appears many parents and students (I think) put up with the insane cost of uni so their kids will “meet the right person.”

    You can’t really do that on Zoom.

    Graeme Wood of The Atlantic wrote an article about the fact college life is a cruise ship-like petri dish last month which I can recommend.

    D.A., J.D., NYC

    • Mark R.
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:02 am | Permalink

      From personal experience, my married friends (myself included) are coping better than my single friends. One of the great things about being single (and all my single friends are ex-married) is the feeling of “sexual freedom” when it comes to socializing. And yes, many friends I know had an interesting life of online dating, one-night stands that could evolve or not, simple meet and greets, etc. But that freedom is now gone; I didn’t have it or need it when the pandemic hit, but I understand how shitty that would feel as a middle aged single person looking for a spark. And no one’s getting younger.

      Your observation about young people navigating this is even more difficult to fathom. I couldn’t imagine not being able to socialize when I was a young college student. People always say “when I was young we had to x,y,and z”. Their life was perceived as more difficult than the current crop of kids. In the U.S., I don’t think that’s a good analogy anymore (if it ever was in the first place).

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