Harvard University has been ridiculed for its decision to charge full tuition ($49,653), while only offering online classes in the wake of COVID-19.

Media critic Jack Shafer tweets:

Harvard is the new University of Phoenix.

Writer Caitlin Flanagan tweets:

Harvard suckers customers into paying for the world’s most expensive MOOC

Slate business writer Jordan Weissman, however, argues that Harvard is absolutely right to keep tuition high. His argument is revealing, having almost nothing to do with, you know, the quality of the education on offer.

Weissman admits that some of the classes are great—but that is a mere aside to the real meaning of Harvard. Here is the gist of the piece:

Second, it’s arguable whether Harvard students are actually getting cheated out of their money. Yes, remote learning is a drag—I have personally started and quit many a MOOC—but in the end, the main benefit of an Ivy League education isn’t really classes, fantastic as some of them might be.

Schools like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Princeton serve as four-year networking events and outsourced HR departments for companies in finance, tech, and media. Spending a semester, or even a whole year, away from campus (only freshmen, seniors, and students who don’t have resources to learn from home will be allowed on) isn’t going to fundamentally change that long-term value proposition. If I were a parent, I might encourage my kid to take a gap year or consider a leave of absence for the fall (both still options), but it’s not clear anybody is wasting their cash by logging in to Cambridge’s Zoom U in September because they want to complete their degree within four years.

In addition to keeping out hoi polloi, the great thing about Harvard’s maintaining its full tuition is that it enables other, lesser schools, to do the same:

But the main point in favor of Harvard’s decision isn’t really about Harvard at all—it’s about the rest of higher education. Decisions made in Cambridge tend to have ripple effects. If Harvard were to waive its tuition entirely this year, or more steeply discount it even for rich kids, it would send a message that online education is simply not worth paying for right now, which is the last thing academia wants to be communicating at a moment when many less prestigious schools are facing a financial reckoning.

It will also create pressure for other schools with fewer financial resources to follow suit. My guess is that most of America would understand that just because Harvard can afford to lower prices, doesn’t meant public colleges can do the same. But by holding the line on its own tuition, Harvard is probably making it ever so slightly easier for public schools facing real budget pressures to do the same.

College tuition has risen to such an unrealistic level that it is no longer possible for an ambitious young person to work her way through college. The solution to this seemed to be college loans, which are turning out to be so burdensome that the cost of a college degree holds many young Americans in in economic bondage.

Weissman seems to say that high tuition is great because it contributes to a stratified society in which an education meritocracy is able to separate itself from the rest of the country. And not on the basis of education, but simply by erecting barriers.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Weissman is a graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.  Tuition is $54, 568, so we can assume that the networking is at least acceptable because college is not about the education.