In mid-March, after the Covid-19 pandemic forced the University of North Carolina system to shutter its campuses, the network of 16 public universities across the state moved to make up for the students’ sudden loss, providing them a prorated refund for their housing and dining plans, which had become effectively useless after the campus closure.
Then, in June, the university sent out an update: It would not be providing students a similar refund if campuses closed again during the fall semester. When Laura Comino, a 19-year-old senior, received the e-mail, she was irate.
In response, she drafted a petition demanding that all 16 schools in the UNC system issue refunds if students had to leave their campus housing again. It has since received over 40,000 signatures. “What I’m really fighting for right now is the idea that every single student should be guaranteed a place to live,” Comino said. “Even if it means that those of us with other means don’t remain on campus.”
As the number of universities moving their educational operations online for the fall semester continues to grow, hundreds of aggrieved students across the country are similarly speaking out. With these changes, they argue, comes a glaring discrepancy in the services they had agreed to pay for versus what they have, out of necessity, to forgo. From Rutgers to Texas A&M and the University of New Mexico, students across the country are demanding lowered tuitions and fees, arguing they shouldn’t have to pay for services that they don’t have access to while attending classes online. Fall tuition, they argue, should reflect that of traditional online classes, as this is what their schooling has in effect become.
A petition started by Brown University’s Undergraduate Council of Students successfully convinced the university to reduce fees for students learning remotely by more than $600 and eliminated a $920 nonresident fee for students not living in Providence. A small group of schools, including Georgetown and Princeton, which both reduced tuition by 10 percent, have offered reductions. Southern New Hampshire University offered full tuition awards to incoming students.
But these schools have been in the minority. In an era when most of the nation’s roughly 5,000 colleges and universities have had to raise tuition about 3 percent annually, in part because of drastic state budget cuts, most universities are unwilling to reduce tuition. For them, the pandemic has prompted a sudden drop in enrollment; they face losses in the millions. The American Council on Education predicts that “institutions have a total of $46.6 billion in increased student need and lost revenues, and will spend at least $73.8 billion on new expenditures specific to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The University of Michigan, for example, predicts that it will lose between $400 million and $1 billion because of the pandemic, and universities are predicted to lose $4 billion in revenue from football season alone. And though the federal stimulus package provided $14 billion in relief aid to higher education, US colleges and universities collectively produce around $700 billion annually, with the aid doing little to offset financial losses caused by the pandemic.
Will Doyle, a professor of higher education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, said the only way he foresees universities’ rebounding financially is a second wave of federal aid. Without action from Congress, he said, colleges could actually lose the on-campus services students are currently protesting having to pay for while attending class online, which would be a drastic loss when campuses reopen. “If [colleges] go through with cuts—particularly to residential services and food services—they’re going to lose those employees,” Doyle said. “They’re faced not with moving some things around but essentially losing that service altogether. So if we want to have residence halls and we want to have dining halls and all the rest [when colleges] reopen next fall, they need to keep them running.”
Doyle also said that contrary to popular belief, online classes usually cost the same if not more than in-person classes because of technical and faculty expenses. This has been an unexpected financial hurdle for colleges and universities as they transitioned their operations partially or completely online. But he adds that “there’s no serious argument that online classes are of higher quality than standard face-to-face classes. There’s some evidence that under some circumstances, they could be about the same. And the bulk of the evidence that we have is that student outcomes are worse in online courses.”
Students argue that the burden shouldn’t fall on them to make up financial losses. Reilly Shingler, a junior at Ithaca College, where classes are now all online, said she doesn’t think she should pay in-person tuition if she’s not getting the in-person experience. She’s also concerned about the students who have trouble learning over Zoom, or who are missing necessary services they would normally utilize if campus were open, like mental health services, wellness centers, and computer labs. “I think that it’s kind of unfair that college is actually viewed as a business in the United States, and that it’s all about the revenue,” Shingler said. “It’s terrible, the money issues and everything. But I think that ultimately, it’s a place of learning. [College] should be about the students and their well-being, and if this whole institution was created for students, then the administration should really do what’s in the best interest of those students.”
Olivia Alicea, a sophomore at the University of California, Los Angeles, created a petition asking UCLA to reduce its tuition and fees. Alicea pays out-of-state tuition to study film but has begun to question the effectiveness of the upcoming quarter, since she won’t be able to use any of the equipment her tuition and fees pay for. The loss of her educational environment, Alicea feels, is causing the quality of her education to suffer. “I was angry that I would be having to pay that money—and then it made me even angrier to think about all the people who already are struggling, and might be jobless, might be losing family members, all these other extra problems that would prohibit them from being able to pay,” Alicea said. “I realized that there’s really no reason for the tuition to stay the same. We’re losing so much.”
But what annoys her the most is that UCLA, she says, advertises its diverse student body as a selling point but seems to be ignoring students’ calls for help when they need it most. “It boasts a lot about its diverse student population, its low-income population. And so I would assume that they would put in the extra effort to accommodate these students when they use them for numbers,” she said. “But it doesn’t seem to be so.”
Doyle said that forcing students to switch to remote learning but requiring full tuition will further exacerbate the inequalities between wealthy students and economically disadvantaged students. “There’s every indication that the conditions that are going to pertain over the next few months will increase gaps between students by income, possibly by race,” he said, adding that those who can’t afford to pay full tuition this year and choose to take a gap year, especially minority and economically disadvantaged students, will be less likely to return to campus once in-person classes resume.
Elizabeth Owolabi, a sophomore at Baylor University, started a petition to get Baylor to reduce tuition and fees to prevent these kinds of disadvantages. She said the inequalities students are facing by being relegated to online learning—especially, as Baylor is located in Waco, Tex., in the wake of August’s Hurricane Laura—should justify lowered tuition, and she feels it’s inappropriate of the university to expect students to continue paying full tuition for online classes.
“Most people have jobs; most people’s families are struggling; most people’s families are dealing with hurricanes, dealing with death, and now money has to go to that,” Owolabi said. “I just really wish they would understand where we’re all coming from.”