In this moment of double-digit unemployment and widespread job insecurity, students are urging colleges to reconsider the price tag for their education this fall. Even in the absence of financial struggles, students say it’s unconscionable for schools to charge the same amount as they spend much of their time in online classes and away from their peers.
There is no easy solution. Many colleges and universities are contending with a budget crisis that has led to furloughs, layoffs and pay cuts. Discounting tuition could deepen their losses, but failing to take action could have the same effect if students forgo enrollment.
Morgan McCue, 24, a second-year graduate student in Georgetown University’s environmental metrology and policy program, wonders whether the tuition she’s paying will be worth it, even with a 5 percent tuition reduction.
She will take classes through the computer screen, as Georgetown remains remote for the start of the semester. A research project analyzing microplastics and their effects on freshwater ecosystems in the Potomac River — also part of her graduation requirement — is “up in the air,” she said.
“I know they’re trying to do their best,” McCue, who moved from San Jose last year to study at Georgetown, said about school officials. But she said a 5 percent discount still leaves the cost-per-credit-hour at more than $2,000. Most undergraduate students at the school, meanwhile, are being offered 10 percent off the cost of tuition.
Officials at Georgetown had hoped to open the school in August for a mix of in-person and online classes but, on Wednesday, they scrapped those plans. Citing public health concerns and new travel restrictions in the District, leaders said the semester would begin online and offered the discounts.
Originally, graduate students were left out of Georgetown’s tuition reduction plans, raising ire among students like McCue, who said they also deserved concessions for agreeing to weather another uncertain semester.
Some schools, most of them private, have also shared plans to reduce tuition amid an outcry from students, even though some are planning to hold a portion of their classes in person.
Williams College in Massachusetts is discounting its costs by 15 percent, while Princeton University, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University are cutting tuition by 10 percent. Southern New Hampshire University is even offering incoming freshmen full tuition scholarships for the first year, while slashing the price for everyone else from $31,000 to $10,000.
American University unveiled a 10 percent discount as officials reversed course this week and told students they would start the school year online.
Public universities have less autonomy than private institutions in setting their prices. States or systemwide governing boards often make decisions about tuition, and may be reluctant to budge as state support dwindles in a depressed economy. Still, some state schools are holding the line on tuition this fall, including Old Dominion University, Temple University and the University of Massachusetts system.
In some cases, freezing or lowering tuition is being paired with workforce reductions to close widening budget gaps created by the pandemic. The U-Mass. system is cutting about 6 percent of its full-time workforce and furloughing thousands to address a $264 million shortfall.
Other public institutions say fiscal constraints are placing pressure on pricing.
George Mason University President Gregory Washington, in a recent interview, said leaders are anticipating a budget shortfall between $70 million and $125 million because of shaky enrollment, costs associated with going remote, and revenue loss from such things as events and parking fees. Tuition, student fees, and room and board accounted for more than half of the campus’s revenue in fiscal 2020.
Student groups and the local NAACP are railing against the university’s decision to raise tuition. School leaders in May introduced an increase that will raise tuition by $225 per semester for students taking a full course load. The university plans to offer both in-person and online classes this semester.
“Despite the increase of tuition, students will not receive a higher level of education,” the NAACP’s Young Adult Committee wrote in a letter to university leaders. “Students will have additional burdens placed on them due to the lack of on-campus resources, such as the library, campuswide Wi-Fi, university transportation and many others.”
The tuition increase could have disproportionate effects for Black students, who default on student loans at five times the rate of their White peers, the letter said.
Historically Black colleges and universities are also considering the ways the pandemic is affecting the students they serve. But with longtime budget woes because of trouble growing endowments, uneven funding and disparities in fundraising, there is little wiggle room to offer discounts, leaders said.
Yet at Hampton University, where the fall term will be conducted online, President William R. Harvey told students they would get a 15 percent discount on tuition and fees — bringing costs for most undergraduates down to $12,519.
“Here, at Hampton, we do not hold our finger up to see which way the wind is blowing and then follow,” Harvey said. “Instead, we act responsibly and make decisions based upon what is right and best for our students and other members of the Hampton University community.”
Kimberlee-Mykel Thompson, 20, a rising junior and vice president of Hampton’s Student Government Association, said she’s grateful for the discount, noting that it might encourage students to stay enrolled at the campus of more than 4,200 students.
“Obviously you have students who, especially for freshmen, you pay for the college experience. If people just wanted to go get a degree, they could go to a technical school or a community college,” Thompson said. “Some people felt like tuition should be much lower. I think [Hampton] did what they could under the circumstances.”
Even though fall enrollment is humming along at most colleges and universities, revenue from housing and other auxiliary services will be limited as schools take steps to mitigate outbreaks on campus. Moody’s Investors Service said it expects that the revenue schools take in from housing, dining services and athletics could be down from 3 percent to as much as 25 percent.
Universities are taking into account that the residential student experience — studying in the school library, living in dormitories and participating in extracurricular activities — will not be the same, even if some classes are in-person. Students say the upended experience warrants a reduction in price, but online instruction is not cheaper to deliver than in-person classes as a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution shows.
“We can’t talk about prices without talking about costs,” said Denisa Gandara, an assistant professor of higher education at Southern Methodist University. “When institutions reduce the tuition price, they may end up getting less revenue, but their costs are increasing in a lot of cases. We’re talking technology purchases, faculty training, health insurance premiums.”
Colleges and universities are trying to manage their finances while considering the challenges families are facing in doing the same. But helping some students at the expense of others is sowing seeds of discontent.
Take the University of Michigan, where the governing Board of Regents approved a 1.9 percent tuition increase at the flagship Ann Arbor campus last month. To offset the increase for in-state students from families with low incomes, the board is pouring $12.8 million into need-based financial aid. The university is offering a mix of in-person and online classes.
Out-of-state students such as Jenny Gurung, 19, are shut out of the concession. The rising junior from Queens will see her tuition go up by $966 to $51,838 for the 2020-2021 academic year. Her parents have been paying most of her tuition out of pocket for the past two years, with student loans making up the difference. Gurung worries about two more years of this arrangement, especially if the university continues to raise prices.
“This idea that just because you’re middle class . . . you’ll be able to afford to pay is a faulty assumption,” Gurung said. “The university really doesn’t give a lot of financial aid to out-of-staters. And it’s frustrating.”
All of her classes are online this fall, so Gurang is leaning toward remaining in Queens for the semester. She would have to sublease the $1,600, two-bedroom apartment she shares with a roommate in Ann Arbor, but the savings could be worth the effort.
University of Michigan spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said that while the school is “not able to make the same commitment to out-of-state students as we do to in-state students, we do make every effort to minimize the impact of tuition increases on all students who receive need-based financial aid.”
Gurung’s classmates are petitioning the university to suspend the tuition increase, arguing that this is not the time to “add more burden to students who are already stressed and struggling.”
Similar campaigns urging schools to freeze or lower tuition are underway at the University of Texas at Austin, New York University and the University of New Mexico, for example. Rise, a national student-led advocacy group, has taken to social media to implore colleges that are receiving federal pandemic relief funds to cease tuition hikes, expand student aid and make school free for front-line workers.
Hunter Franklin, 19, a photojournalism and public policy major at Syracuse University, started a petition that has received nearly 9,000 signatures from students protesting the 3.9 percent tuition increase. Tuition at the private university in Upstate New York will be $50,700 for seniors and $54,270 for all other undergraduates for the 2020-2021 academic year.
“The university is charging us more for less,”Franklin said. “There is something ethically wrong with the university increasing tuition in the middle of a pandemic. People have lost jobs, lost family members and are going through tough times.” Syracuse plans both online and in-person courses for the fall.
Franklin will begin his sophomore year at home in Phoenix. Between the health risks of being on campus and the expense of quarantining in a hotel or dorm for two weeks before school starts, returning to New York didn’t make sense, he said.
Syracuse said in a statement that it takes the concerns of students seriously and is increasing financial aid by 7 percent over the previous year to meet the needs of students.
“We appreciate how difficult it is for our students and their families to navigate the uncertainty and unique stressors presented by the pandemic and Syracuse University is doing everything it can to limit the financial impact,” said Joshua Grossman, a spokesman for the university.