Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.
With in-person classes still on track to stay virtual in fall, students are starting to ask: shouldn't my tuition be cheaper?
Protest and dissent is often a part of the broader experience that students gain while they're in college. And while the spread of COVID-19 has pushed students away from campus, they're still finding a way to make their voices heard on the issues of the day.
The topic at hand this time? Tuition prices, specifically for students who have been forced to take classes online after planning to attend on campus.
More than 15,000 students at the University of Washington have signed a petition asking the school to refund at least part of their spring tuition. It states that critical factors are missing from the learning experience, including access to labs, facilities, and face-to-face guidance.
"We believe that these are valuable hundreds of hours we are missing out on being at the school physically," the petition states. "It is entirely impossible for the students to receive the fullness of the educational experience we are paying for, not to mention the immense amount of tuition for the out-of-state students."
But most colleges price their tuition carefully to balance their academic, administrative, and operational costs. Many schools can't afford to reduce rates.
“They deserve to get a cheaper education. But the reality is that they're probably not going to get it.”
"With all the financial pressures, colleges are not going to cut tuition unless they have no choice," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at Savingforcollege.com. "They deserve to get a cheaper education. But the reality is that they're probably not going to get it."
Typically, academic programs include access to labs, seminars, and research opportunities. Most students also expect to participate in campus experiences such as Greek life, athletic events, and extracurricular activities on or near campus.
But student life as everyone knows it screeched to a halt in March. Social distancing measures made schools pivot their instruction to video conference apps, such as Zoom, which presents challenges for students and professors.
“The spring semester was an emergency response to a pandemic, not intentionally designed remote education. There is a difference between standardized content delivery and an intentionally designed, immersive online experience.”
The transition has led to higher spending for remote instruction, said Ceceilia Parnther, an assistant professor of higher education at St. John's University. Parnther said paying for enhanced technology infrastructure, faculty training, and internet connectivity has stretched institutions thin.
"This is a difficult time, and conversations on cost are very complex right now," she said. "These are emergency decisions being made. The spring semester was an emergency response to a pandemic, not intentionally designed remote education. There is a difference between standardized content delivery and an intentionally designed, immersive online experience."
Some Schools Plan to Reduce Tuition Due to COVID-19, but Not Others
Some colleges have announced plans to freeze tuition for the upcoming school year or not increase it in 2021. Others have given partial tuition refunds for unused fees.
Southern New Hampshire University announced it would slash tuition rates from $31,000 to $10,000 by 2021. The private nonprofit — which has more than 135,000 online students compared to 3,000 on-campus students — is also offering full-tuition scholarships to incoming first-year students enrolling on campus.
Winthrop University cut its summer tuition by 12%, while American University is offering 10% off summer classes. Florida Gateway College is letting students enroll in two summer classes for the price of one.
But most colleges and universities aren't budging. From the perspective of these schools, they're having the same faculty teach the same classes for the same credits. And of course, the diploma won't be any less valuable if a few of the credits graduates earn were taken online.
Crisis Exacerbates College Affordability Concerns
Because the coronavirus is a temporary issue, Kantrowitz still believes a degree is worth the price tag. As long as it comes from an accredited college, employers won't distinguish between traditional and online programs, and diplomas don't indicate whether classes were taken online or not anyways.
“As long as it comes from an accredited college, employers won't distinguish between traditional and online programs.”
But the crisis has put the issue of college affordability under even more scrutiny than before. From the late 1980s to 2018, the cost of an undergraduate degree increased by 213% at public schools and 129% at private schools, adjusting for inflation.
In 2019, the average college tuition plus room and board fees was $49,870 at private colleges and $21,950 at public colleges. In comparison, the typical starting salary for a recent college graduate is $50,944, according to a 2019 report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).
"It's clear to families that college is very expensive," Kantrowitz said. "It puts a sharp focus on college affordability. And families still want their children to be taught face to face by faculty. When they're not getting that, they're questioning everything."
Is the Cost of College Too High?
Despite the price tag, most colleges and universities run on very tight margins. To remain financially viable, schools rely on a steady stream of students paying for books, room and board, and tuition.
The pandemic is likely to cause a significant dip in enrollment, especially if international students — who make up about 10% of the higher education population — are unable to come to campus due to visa restrictions.
"Most schools are fully dependent on enrollment," Parnther said. "With states providing far less support to higher education than ever before, institutions are dependent on tuition dollars for longevity."
“With states providing far less support to higher education than ever before, institutions are dependent on tuition dollars for longevity.”
If the public health outlook prevents campuses from opening in the fall, many colleges will be in trouble. Small and large institutions are already weighing the effectiveness of cost-cutting and saving measures, such as furloughs, temporary pay cuts, and reduced faculty. MacMurray College — a private institution founded in 1846 — will close entirely after the spring semester.
"The institutions are really bleeding from this," said William Zumeta, a professor at the University of Washington who studies state support for higher education. "If you're close to the edge like a lot of private colleges without large endowments, then you pretty quickly have to cut the core operating expenses to match the revenue coming in."
A Few Silver Linings, Despite the Crisis
Zumeta said that while the coronavirus presents plenty of challenges for colleges, there's room for growth. Forced to adapt to virtual learning, institutions may come out ahead in some areas.
"The positive side might be that there will be technological jumps forward," he said. "Faculty and institutions will invest more in learning how to teach effectively with online technology, so you'll see better versions of that. The advantage of having a big, complex system is that you'll get a lot of experimentation, and some might lead to improvements."
He also anticipates a temporary shift in enrollment at online colleges, which can be more affordable.
According to a 2018 study by Arizona State University, attending online colleges saves students up to 50% of the average per-credit-hour cost.
“Attending online colleges saves students up to 50% of the average per-credit-hour cost.”
Because the public health outlook could mean delays in students returning to campus, enrolling in programs unaffected by the coronavirus could be a better short-term solution.
Higher waitlist acceptance rates might be another byproduct of the coronavirus. Kantrowitz said colleges dealing with reduced enrollment would be more likely to accept waitlisted students.
Depending on the public health outlook, colleges and universities could be vastly different in the fall, but not everyone believes students will be worse off.
"I struggle with the essentialist framing of what is happening now as a 'lesser experience,'" Parnther said. "The reality is that campuses as we have known them are forever changed. My hope is that we will collectively reimagine ways to have intentional educational experiences."