As American colleges and universities send students home and switch to online learning amid the coronavirus crisis, calls are mounting for these institutions to offer their students a partial tuition refund. While many institutions have pro-rated room and board fees, universities have so far refused to offer tuition refunds. This leaves students and their families with a hefty bill in the midst of an economic crisis that is forcing lay-offs and business closures nationwide.
Universities, however, have remained firm. UC-Irvine has pointed out that, although classes have moved online, students “will still be getting instruction from University of California instructors and it’s a University of California grade that counts toward their diploma.” In other words, students are still getting what they’re paying for, so there’s no problem.
If what students are paying for is an education, though, then those demanding refunds have a point. As NAS’s own David Randall argues, the classroom, in its ideal form, is irreplaceable. A seminar discussion that grapples with complex and weighty ideas is difficult to replicate in a virtual space—to say nothing of a science lab or an art studio. Education has been, traditionally, a communal enterprise, a shared conversation with great thinkers and ideas throughout history. This communal aspect is crucial to the cultivation of wisdom and civic virtue, both of which are necessary for the flourishing of a republic—a form of government whose cornerstone has always been the in-person, deliberative assembly.
If university students are paying for this sort of education, their calls for a refund should certainly be heeded. But as the National Association of Scholars has argued, elite universities do not provide an education in the traditional sense. NAS’s Social Justice Education in America documents how American higher education has largely replaced the pursuit of truth with proselytizing for a leftist political agenda. What students receive at most American universities is not the inheritance of the Western tradition, but an initiation into the opinions expected of the American elite: a commitment to “social justice” and “diversity,” a penchant for soft-core socialism, a veneration of individual autonomy, and a disregard for traditional forms of human community.
In other words, the elite institutions of higher education in America no longer exist to educate, but to perpetuate the privileged class. They are “woke” finishing schools for the children of the wealthy and powerful. Their diplomas grant graduates access to high-paying and influential positions in American society.
At most universities, then, students are not paying for an education to begin with. They are purchasing a place in the American aristocracy. Those who dispense positions of wealth and influence will hardly think twice about one semester of online coursework if it’s on a Harvard diploma.
So can students really object? After all, they’ll still get their money’s worth.