I’ll never forget something that my professor said back when I first started studying computer science at Harvard. He said life is just made up of “inputs and outputs.”

That was just my first day at Harvard, and I’m not sure all my Harvard classmates fully understood what he was saying, despite their perfect SATs and international awards (or billionaire parents) that you need to get into a place like Harvard.

But before I came to Harvard, I’d done some growing up, and what the Harvard professor said rang true: Life is a process, and where you start is less important than where you end up, especially if you end up at Harvard.

Harvard, Harvard, Harvard, Harvard, Harvard.


Maybe I should clarify. If by “go to Harvard” you mean applying when you’re 17 and getting a fat letter in the mail, I didn’t technically go, in that sense.

What I did was sign up for a MOOC – a Massive Open Online Course – which I access with a computer at home. I watch lectures on video, procrastinate on homework assignments and have a network of fellow students I could study with.

What I don’t have is a dorm room or a roommate or a meal plan. I also won’t be getting any academic credit, but instead of a tuition bill for $43,938, I will be paying nothing. Zero.

As we enter the time of year when high school seniors are desperate to find out where life may be taking them, and parents get ready to discover just how rich they are in the opinion of trained financial aid professionals, my foray into the Ivy League poses an interesting question: What are we paying for?

Harvard gives away the content of its courses, and it’s not just Harvard. You could take a full load at MIT, Johns Hopkins, Stanford or Chicago every semester for the rest of your life and not pay a dime.

You would not have any alone time with your professors, but that’s probably true for many of my 300 or so classmates (the real ones) who are packed into a theater, not a lecture hall.

And you would not get to watch the lectures “live” and in person, which is not all bad. There’s something to be said for wearing your bathrobe, stopping and rewinding when you miss something and taking a break when your attention drifts, not when the teacher tells you it’s time.

Maybe that’s not as good as taking the class for real, but it’s pretty good. And it’s free.

What you don’t get online, and what some families will end up paying a quarter million dollars for, is prestige.

Everyone knows that these students were the winners in a brutal competition in which fewer than one in 10 succeeds.

Very few people go to Harvard (or Yale or Stanford), and being one who did attend gives strangers a powerful piece of information about your worth. Hence the old joke: How do you know that someone went to Harvard? They tell you.

As for the educational value of the classes themselves – well, the schools have told us what they’re worth. Nothing or next to nothing.

Kevin Carey, the author of “The End of College” (and graduate of MIT’s freshman biology MOOC), predicts that the higher education system as it’s set up today can’t survive – and in his view, that’s a good thing.

A system that has educated millions at a high cost would be replaced by one that would educate billions at little cost. Science students would still need to work in a lab, performers would still have to step on a stage, but big lectures and even face-to-face seminars can be delivered anywhere in the world where there is an Internet connection and a willing student.

Students would work at their own pace in ways that have never really been possible before, and Carey says the electronic version of a diploma would carry much more information than the sheepskin kind.

This promises to be better for students than it would be for institutions. Schools like Harvard are offering their classes for free so they can maintain their leadership role in this fast-changing higher education world. They are counting on their brands becoming even more important as their reach grows.

They apparently are not worried that distributing the content for free globally takes away the scarcity that made a Harvard degree so valuable.

They may be right, but I’ve seen this before: an industry that tries to maintain market share by giving its product away for free on the Internet. It’s not pretty.

While the reputation still exists though, I’m in. Go, Crimson!

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at:

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Twitter: gregkesich