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College students don’t want to pay tuition to “Zoom University.” With higher education forced online amid the coronavirus pandemic, some students are petitioning universities for refunds or discounts for tuition and activities fees.
There are at least a dozen class-action lawsuits against colleges, including Columbia University and the entire University of California system. In some cities, students are on strike against their schools, demanding refunds and discounts. But amid the crisis, universities are worried about their own budgets and operating costs — and some wonder if they’ll have to shut down for good.
Why there’s debate
College students and parents say that the quality of remote education is subpar to the in-person experience, pointing to the lack of access to state-of-the-art science and arts facilities, networking and in-person exercises such as medical training. They argue that the crisis has thrown families into financial trouble — more than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment. Many parents have been laid off, and the devastation of the so-called gig economy has hurt students working part-time jobs.
Universities say they never accounted for a pandemic in their budgets. While some institutions have the resources to offer partial refunds or discounts, others with smaller endowments say they can’t afford it. Although the CARES Act allocates $14 billion to colleges nationwide, some institutions are projecting losses of more than $100 million each. Universities anticipate fewer donations, less funding from state governments, an increase in need for financial aid and a decrease in enrollment in the fall semester. Some have already begun cutting sports teams to save money.
As the spring semester ends, students are mulling whether to return to school in the fall (it’s not clear yet which, if any, campuses will be open). Current students and high school seniors are also weighing the prospect of taking a gap year. Universities facing unprecedented financial strain are considering raising next year’s tuition even higher.
Online class doesn’t provide the same quality of education
“When you save their entire lives to send them to this fabulous experience — the idyllic location, the labs, small discussion groups — and you’re writing this huge check for this comprehensive experience — to say that’s equivalent to an online course? It’s not true. For us, it’s not worth the financial sacrifice.” — Elizabeth Zehner, parent of college students, to Washington Post
Students are in economic crisis. It’s time to dip into endowments.
“They're asking for thousands or even hundreds of dollars that students can’t afford. There is an economic crisis right now, and we are asking for immediate relief. There are a lot of students who are not going to be able to pay, and the financial aid system is not equipped to handle emergencies.” — Julia Attie, University of Chicago senior, to U.S. News & World Report
Colleges only have tuition money because students prepaid
“The only reason that colleges and universities are able to even withhold the money is the fact that they have possession of it. If the students had not prepaid, this would not even be a question.” — Roy Willey, attorney representing students seeking tuition refunds, to ABC News
Colleges didn’t consider a pandemic in their budgets
“Refunds are a sticky business since they are definitely not in the budget. Any significant refunding will create a budget hole. It just depends on how it is prorated. Most institutions have policies about refunds (or no refunds) if a student withdraws. Few (if any) have closure policies.” — W. Joseph King to Inside Higher Ed
It’s challenging for institutions without huge endowments
“Prorating room and board fees will be a challenge for many institutions, as those are attached to fixed costs that the school still has to pay regardless of whether there are students on campus or not. … While [many small, private universities] are providing an excellent education for their students — many of whom are first-generation students, minority students or adult learners — they simply cannot afford to absorb the financial burden incurred by refunding their students’ room and board.” — Kent Ingle, Southeastern University president, Fox Business
Paying for online classes will save the jobs of faculty members
“Moving classes to computers means maintaining the jobs of 1.5 million faculty members (including adjuncts) of all backgrounds, keeping the education business afloat, at a time when layoffs and closed doors of arts institutions, retail and service industries are destroying our economy. This benefits teachers and students, including the third receiving funding or scholarship that won’t be rescinded. ... Give educators a chance to figure out how to better use technology to teach all our subjects, including dramatic arts.” — Susan Shapiro, New School professor, New York Daily News
Campuses must reopen in the fall to offset losses
“The basic business model for most colleges and universities is simple — tuition comes due twice a year at the beginning of each semester. Most colleges and universities are tuition dependent. Remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue.” — Christina Paxson, Brown University president, New York Times
The real danger is in the long-term economic fallout
“Years of budget cuts and the failure to address basic student needs make higher education particularly vulnerable and potentially unequipped to deal with a crisis like this. It’s crucial that the U.S. Congress and the Department of Education act swiftly and aggressively and provide states and institutions with much-needed support before it’s too late.” — Mark Huelsman, Inside Higher Ed
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty