A large portion of American college students are studying entirely remotely, a dramatic change from the norm of just one year ago. Students attending online schools like Western Governors University are learning the same way students do at elite Ivy League institutions. How do current students feel about their educational experience, and is there any correlation between conventional measures of excellence and quality and the perceptions of current students actually experiencing (enduring?) remote learning? Perhaps even more relevant, are students paying $50,000 or more in tuition fees experiencing a superior experience to those paying much less, say $15,000 or less?

TestMax, a test preparation company with a six-digit number of student names in its database, recently surveyed those students, asking them to answer five questions relating to their satisfaction about the current education experience. Students from more than 440 institutions replied, and the schools that TestMax thinks got the most positive evaluations were, in general, non-prestigious schools, many with little or no residential campus presence, while Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton ranked in the bottom half of the sampled schools.

The cheaper, less prestigious schools generally outperformed the expensive, elite and prestigious institutions, with a few exceptions such as Pomona College. A few respected public schools, such as Purdue and the universities of Arizona and Florida, also were highly rated, as was online pioneer the University of Phoenix. Mehran Ebadolahi, CEO of TestMax, himself a UCLA and Harvard graduate, perceptively noted to me that Harvard Law is usually outranked by Yale because Harvard accepts more students—the key to high rankings is denying education to potential students! Where else in life does success come from turning away paying customers?

This is purely a customer (student) satisfaction survey, with the students asked five questions, including: “How effective is your school in delivering remote education?” They were also asked, “How effective is your university at remaining socially connected (albeit remotely) during the COVID-19 pandemic?” This second question gets to a key deficiency of remote learning—the lack of a sense of community and interaction between students, faculty and others. College for many is as much of a socialization mechanism as a learning community.

Why do students attend expensive Ivy League and other prestigious private schools instead of cheaper alternatives offering, in many students’ eyes, a more satisfying educational experience? The bottom line is still the diploma, and a diploma from a prestigious private school will typically produce a large amount—sometimes a million dollars—more lifetime income to recipients. It’s not what you learn, or how much you enjoy it, but how potential users of your future labor market services perceive the value of your diploma.

The TestMax survey can be justly criticized on many grounds. It uses a non-random sample of students, and some schools are completely unrepresented while other obscure ones are not. Is the good of a school solely determined by student satisfaction, or are the views of others, including the users of the services of the schools, relevant? The survey mixes together community colleges and four-year institutions. All that said, I expect that an impeccably designed survey done by a respected purveyor of public opinion like Gallup would probably show roughly similar results.

Even long before Covid, many persons argued that top-ranked schools often were neglectful of their undergraduates, paying far more attention to prized graduate students and research. A highly distinguished scholar who taught at Stanford once told me that he sent his son to Claremont McKenna instead of Stanford despite the fact he could get full tuition remission at Stanford, simply because Claremont McKenna cares far more for its flock of undergraduates (disclosure: I once taught at Claremont McKenna).

Will the temporary shift to remote learning lead to greater acceptance of alternative ways of credentialing for vocational competence? I would bet if the current all-remote learning environment continued for years, the prestige schools like Princeton, Stanford, Duke and Northwestern would lose their luster and dominant positions on the reputational scale. While these prestige schools are not in the dire financial shape that many far less exalted schools are, their long-term reputation also is highly dependent on ending the coronavirus pandemic.