The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College students are rebelling against full tuition after classes move online

So far, universities aren’t budging

A business professor uses a K-Cup prop while teaching students from a makeshift studio in his basement in Maryland. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

His professors adapted swiftly to the campus closure. His classes are continuing online. He expects to graduate on time this spring from Johns Hopkins University, albeit without the pomp of commencement.

Yet Pavan Patel wonders why he and others at the private research university in Baltimore are not getting at least a partial tuition refund. Their education, as this school year ends in the shadow of a deadly pandemic, is nothing like the immersive academic and social experience students imagined when they enrolled. But tuition remains the same: $27,675 per semester.

Patel, the school’s senior class president, and other student government leaders sent a letter to the university recently asking for a 25 percent refund, or nearly $7,000 per student. They are part of a growing rebellion against colleges and universities that refuse to cut tuition at a moment of financial peril.

“Our faculty are doing a good job of working with us,” said Patel, 22, who is from New Jersey. “But at the end of the day, it’s not the same as in-person learning. … It shouldn’t just be a part of the business model where, no matter what happens, you have to pay the same amount. The cost needs to reflect some of the realities.”

The coronavirus crisis is forcing a reckoning over the price and value of higher education. Schools geared toward full-time students ages 18 to 22 offer, in normal times, academic programs with a personal touch, including seminars, laboratory classes, office hours and research opportunities with faculty. They also tout the importance of meeting a diverse array of classmates through dormitories, dining halls, extracurricular activities, Greek life, athletic events, overseas studies and more.

Much of that vanished when campuses shuttered last month, a public health measure designed to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus.

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Many schools provided partial refunds for room and board after they sent students home. But they have held firm on tuition, arguing that classes are still moving forward and credit will still be awarded toward degrees.

“We can certainly all agree that this is not the spring semester any of us envisioned,” Johns Hopkins said in a statement. “With the current plans in place to complete the academic year and deliver on its mission in service of its students, at this time Johns Hopkins University is not offering tuition refunds.”

The university noted that it has issued refunds for unused portions of room and board. Patel, who lives off campus, is not expecting to get any housing rebates. But he said he is getting a $1,856.75 refund for his meal plan.

Students elsewhere are petitioning for refunds and even taking their cases to court.

In a class-action lawsuit filed last week in federal court in South Carolina, a student named Adelaide Dixon, acting on behalf of herself and classmates, demanded a refund from the University of Miami for alleged breach of contract. Undergraduate tuition and fees at the private research university total about $51,900 a year, not counting room and board.

The suit cites university marketing materials that extol the benefit of living on campus to meet other students, faculty and staff members: “It’s a special time of learning and maturing; a time to be a member of the University family.” The suspension of in-person teaching, the suit alleges, marked a failure to deliver on that promise.

In a statement, the university said it is “providing a robust online learning environment, and proactively working with all of our students and their families to make it through this difficult time and for all of us to emerge stronger in the future. The University is aware of the court filing and we will continue to monitor the situation.”

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Another class-action suit filed this week in federal court in Virginia is demanding that Liberty University refund fees for campus services students have lost because of the pandemic. Liberty said it will fight the lawsuit, “which is without legal merit.” The university said it will honor a pledge to issue $1,000 credits to certain students who moved out of residence halls.

Graduates from the Class of 2020 shared how they're coping after the coronavirus outbreak brought senior year to an abrupt ending. (Video: The Washington Post)

At the University of Chicago, a group of students is threatening to withhold spring tuition payments, which are due April 29, unless the school responds to demands for a temporary 50 percent tuition reduction and other financial relief. Tuition at the private university is $19,214 per quarter or more than $57,000 a year, not counting room and board. Students who qualify for financial aid often pay far less.

Julia Attie, 21, of New York, who is a senior at the University of Chicago, joined more than 1,600 people in signing a petition urging the school to negotiate on tuition. She is working to finish a bachelor’s degree with a double major in history and visual arts. “I’m sitting at home and taking online classes,” Attie said. “That’s very real. It’s not the senior spring I expected to have, and that is quite disappointing for me in a lot of ways.”

Attie said she has been “pleasantly surprised” at the quality of the online classes. “My professors are really going above and beyond,” she said. To her, the tuition-reduction movement is mostly a plea for help for financially distressed students and families. The university as of last summer had an endowment worth $8.5 billion. Students wonder why that fund can’t be tapped more for emergency help.

The University of Chicago said in a statement that most of its endowment is legally restricted, with funds targeted for academics, research or other designated purposes. But income from the endowment does help the university provide financial aid. The university said that it will honor its financial aid commitments and increase support for students whose needs have increased during the crisis. It also has pledged not to increase the total bill for tuition, housing and fees for undergraduates in the next school year — a step that student activists consider a victory.

The university said it “remains deeply committed to ensuring that students from all backgrounds, regardless of financial need, have the opportunity to benefit from and contribute to UChicago’s distinctive educational environment.”

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The longer universities are forced to operate remotely, the more pressure they will face to cut prices to ensure they can attract students.

The private American University, in Washington, cut tuition for upcoming summer sessions when it announced those classes would not be taught in person. In 2019, the summer rate was $1,587 per credit hour for undergraduates. (A full-time schedule is generally 12 credits.) This year, the summer rate will be $1,471 — a 7 percent price cut.

Before the coronavirus crisis, AU’s tuition for the 2020 summer had been scheduled to be $1,635 per credit hour. Viewed from that perspective, AU officials say the new price represents a 10 percent reduction.

AU President Sylvia M. Burwell said the reduction works out to about $1,000 in savings for a typical summer student. “We were trying to help our students and our parents and think about AU and our broader community,” Burwell said. But she said there are limits to what universities can do on tuition because they depend on that revenue to pay faculty and staff and other expenses.

Burwell cautioned against viewing the summer price cut as a signal of what the university would do if classes are forced to go online in the fall. “It was a decision based on a point in time and what people are feeling right in this moment,” she said.

Joe Heim contributed to this report.