In 2019, an FBI sting operation codenamed “Varsity Blues” uncovered a network of bribery and corruption within the nation’s top colleges, implicating not only celebrities and titans of industry but also the university system at large. Though the pay-for-play nature of the scandal was shocking, it reinforced some underlying assumptions we all hold with regard to college education.
As philosopher and Harvard professor Michael Sandel wrote, the lengths parents were willing to go to ensure their children were admitted to elite schools reflects the social status and standing we place in these institutions.
A degree from Yale, from their point of view, is far more valuable than the trust funds these parents could have given their under-qualified kids instead. A scenario in which only the rich and well-connected access the benefits of an elite college education is a bad one, and I would argue that this is playing out in different ways on campuses all across the country, from Princeton to Rutgers.
Since the onset of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, 5.8 million out of 19.4 million college students are in online-only degrees. This has been hailed as a good thing for hundreds of thousands of degree seekers, granting flexibility for students whose work or familial obligations make it difficult to live on or near a college campus.
Moreover, online options are often cheaper and geared toward skills that are directly marketable upon graduation, something of heightened concern for students amid a challenging job market where many are underemployed, finding jobs that do not require a college degree.
At Rutgers, we went completely online in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among students and the general public, and many of my peers continue to value online classes for all the above reasons (though Rutgers, shamefully, did not lower tuition for students when classes were moved to Zoom).
Despite all that is to be gained from remote learning, I see some troubling horizons if this model continues to grow. With many online degree offerings, people rarely meet their peers or develop close relationships with their professors. Each is paramount to intellectual development but also to the cultivation of something less widely understood, social capital.
Social capital, speaking broadly, is the currency of knowledge, experience and camaraderie that connects so many in the business, academic and political world. My fear is that, though online school can provide skills, it lacks the ability to transmit the status that underpins college’s claims for social mobility.
There is strong debate over whether social capital exists at all and whether college is too late to meaningfully impact it. But the diversity of viewpoints, access to professors and students with networks beyond our own and focus on post-graduate employment are three areas where I think on-campus learning cannot be beaten.
We should be focusing on increasing opportunities for students to partake in this exchange instead of looking to credential people in the quickest and cheapest way possible.
Columbia classics professor Roosevelt Montás has been open about the value of social capital in his own life and has used his own experience to advocate for the continued inclusion of “Great Books” courses as mandatory offerings.
Montás has spoken about his childhood as a Dominican immigrant growing up in New York and how the discovery of classical texts sparked his own interest in philosophy and literature, leading him to Columbia for both his bachelor’s and Ph.D. He argues that the classroom environment provided by a liberal arts education helped him find his voice and that he sees the same phenomenon among his students today.
He has been able to make his way in the world in part due to the influence of others, understanding the university to be a community that draws out the best in us.
My point in this article is not to bash online learning, which has been an incredible boon to students around the world. And it is not to bash students in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) classes and certificate programs, which do teach valuable skills we need down the road.
Rather, I think there is something of value that comes with a college education in the traditional sense: being on campus, in a classroom, surrounded by your peers. Learning from one another, making connections and friendships that will last long after you leave New Brunswick, are more important than the piece of paper with your name and major on it.
I worry that the growth in remote learning and specialized programs are creating two classes of college graduates, only to further entrench the social and economic divisions that college, at its best, can break down.
Ben Donnelly-Fine is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in philosophy and minoring in history. His column, "Existential Red," runs on alternate Mondays.
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