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Is a Remote-Only Harvard Worth Attending?

This week Harvard announced that all of its classes in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the largest division of the college, will be online-only for the 2020-2021 academic year. To offer some kind of physical community and support, the university will allow 40% of its undergraduate students to be on campus, prioritizing all first-year freshmen in the fall and then seniors in the spring.

Even though it’s refreshing to see a college come out with a definitive stance on how to approach a tricky situation during the covid-19 pandemic, the reality is not as appealing when you consider all the pros and cons of online classes and that Harvard in no way altered its $49,600 tuition for the year.

So, the question arises: is it worth attending a top-tier university that only offers remote classes?

Let’s consider a few factors.

1. What do students lose with the online-only approach to an entire year of college?

Presumably you are applying to colleges and attending one because of the quality of the education. But “education” isn’t of course limited to the knowledge that’s transferred from faculty to students. Colleges provide fundamental knowledge, experiential knowledge, and social knowledge.

An Ivy League education is as much about the quality of the courses as it is about the extracurricular experience, which involves forming relationships with peers. The online-only approach severely restricts what you can learn from peers, social groups, internships, living on your own, and personal connections that go well beyond the textbooks.

Online substitutes will help maintain some level of support, and freshmen will be allowed to come to the campus, so the pivotal first year will not be entirely lost to a digital world, but there is something that will definitely be missing from the usual in-person experience.

2. What is gained through the online-only approach?

There’s no doubt that Harvard or any other top-tier university will largely retain its quality of curriculum in the remote environment, especially for its lecture-based classes. Top-tier, award-winning (sometimes even Nobel-winning) professors don’t lose their knowledge and expertise once Zoom loads.

At the very least, there is still a material difference in the people who are teaching the classes, even if the format has been shifted from in-person to online. This is not to deride faculty at state schools or community colleges but to point out that the quality of education can be markedly different based simply on the people teaching the courses. You are still getting to learn from the best and brightest individuals of their fields.

And, remember all those reasons you listed for wanting to specifically attend Harvard or any other top-tier university? Usually professors are part of your reasoning, so even if you are not face-to-face with the faculty, you are still forming some kind of relationship. If anything, you can take advantage of your access to these esteemed faculty members when others simply disengage and wait until next year.

Also, with a little bit of self-discipline, the online-only approach forces you to focus on your studies instead of overly investing in extracurricular activities. Perhaps this year of online-only college can be one for the books--literally.

3. What should rising seniors consider when applying to Ivy League colleges?

Nobody can predict the state of the world -- much less any college’s onsite vs. online policy -- a year in advance. The best that you can do is stay the course, continue to do well in whatever format of high school you are working with, and continue to apply to the colleges that you’ve wanted to attend.

The pandemic will not last forever (hopefully), and eventually colleges will adapt to allow for some form of in-person classes and lab research and everything else you’ve come to expect from the whole college experience, even if the 2021-2022 school year still runs the risk of outbreaks.

Undoubtedly, cost is a concern, and with that in mind, you may want to apply to colleges that are closer to home. You may even decide to save a lot of money by attending community college. You can play it really, really safe and focus your energy on these options, but a year from now there may be a vaccine and no major issues with attendance to top-tier colleges. Really, it is likely that in a year from now freshmen will be in a much better state to return to a normal academic setting than what freshmen face now.

So I would keep up with your same applications and just be realistic that you may have a slightly (or largely) altered freshman year. That said, you can make a choice to attend a closer and cheaper college and transfer later if that seems like a better option when deciding during next April's notification period.

4. How should high schoolers prepare for college admissions changes and uncertainties?

The covid-19 pandemic has presented colleges and high schools with unique challenges and situations, and more common is the practice to remove SAT/ACT test scores from the required documents of the college application. In theory, this makes great sense, especially when these tests have largely been cancelled for the past six months.

However, what is required doesn’t necessarily mean what is preferred. Colleges will still prefer to see these test scores. They will of course take into account situations where getting a score just wasn’t possible (or very feasible). At the end of the day, though, they are going to use all the information that they can to decide their new freshman classes, and they will use SAT/ACT scores, high school grades, supplemental comments from teachers, and anything else you can provide.

In other words, regardless of what is or isn’t required, what is or isn’t graded, you should be doing whatever you can to improve your knowledge of the subjects you will be building upon in college and later high school years, and you should try to be proactive by whatever means is necessary. Colleges know that everyone will be sharing the experience of the pandemic, but not everyone will be sharing how they respond and persevere.

At B2A, we’ve been adapting to the needs of our students and staff while helping those navigate the uncertainties of college admissions during this pandemic. We are currently using an online model while also supporting students and parents with onsite resources. We have test-prep classes, enrichment courses, 1:1 tutoring, and college admissions counseling to help give you structured and meaningful education during a time of constant change. Check out our current schedule and set up a 1:1 consultation with one of our directors to learn how we can best help you!

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