Michael Brendan Dougherty ponders the pandemic’s potential impact on American higher education. Dougherty wonders whether the absence of in-person classes will have an impact on one of the nation’s most prestigious schools.

Harvard University announced that it was canceling in-person classes for the entire upcoming academic year because of COVID-19. Students can attend digital Harvard for the exact same price.

Some of my fellow conservatives are wondering if the stresses of pandemic conditions will finally pop an over-inflated college bubble. The student-age population is already starting to shrink. Tuitions are at all-time highs, and the conventional wisdom is starting to catch up to the reality that the college-premium on salaries may not be worth the debt. And I do think smaller colleges and third-tier schools may be entering a world of hurt. They look at this new “offering” from Harvard and laugh.

But there is not some robust job market that is more attractive than school right now, so I’m not sure that elite universities will suffer.

Many people claim that the value of going to Harvard is really in the networking that Harvard enables on campus, off-campus, and after graduation. Ambitious people of talent meet the elites who buy into institutions like this, and out comes enterprises such as Facebook or the latest NGO. Without the in-person networking, the whole enterprise is worth less, they argue.

I’m not so sure. A huge part of the Harvard “offer” is that being accepted by Harvard and graduating from it confers most of the merit and the networking abilities a prospective employer may seek. This is a change for Harvard students to complete one year of Harvard while not going into debt for student housing. If the classes are not really all that valuable, maybe the digital Harvard will be more popular than we think.