As Colleges Move Classes Online, Families Rebel Against the Cost

“A rebellion against the high cost of a bachelor’s degree, already brewing around the nation before the coronavirus, has gathered fresh momentum as campuses have strained to operate in the pandemic,” reports the New York Times.

“Who wants to pay $25,000 a year for glorified Skype?” one incoming freshman tells them: Incensed at paying face-to-face prices for education that is increasingly online, students and their parents are demanding tuition rebates, increased financial aid, reduced fees and leaves of absences to compensate for what they feel will be a diminished college experience. At Rutgers University, more than 30,000 people have signed a petition started in July calling for an elimination of fees and a 20 percent tuition cut. More than 40,000 have signed a plea for the University of North Carolina system to refund housing charges to students in the event of another Covid-19-related campus shutdown…

Universities have been divided in their response, with some offering discounts but most resisting, arguing that remote learning and other virus measures are making their operations more, not less, costly at a time when higher education is already struggling… Moody’s Investors Service, which in March downgraded the higher education sector to negative from stable, wrote that even before the pandemic, roughly 30 percent of universities “were already running operating deficits.” Since then, emptied dorms, canceled sports, shuttered bookstores and paused study-abroad programs have dried up key revenue streams just as student needs have exploded for everything from financial aid and food stamps to home office equipment and loaner laptops. Public health requirements for masks, barriers, cleaning and other health protections also have added new costs, as have investments in training and technology to improve remote instruction and online courses…

Chapman’s president, Daniele Struppa, said the university spent $20 million on technology and public health retrofits for the fall semester, and he estimates that the switch to an online fall will cost the school $110 million in revenue. He has cut spending “brutally” from the $400 million annual budget, he said, freezing hires, slashing expenses, canceling construction of a new gym, ending the retirement match to employees and giving up 20 percent of his own $720,000 base salary. Only students who can demonstrate financial need will get help, he is telling families. “Tuition really reflects our cost of operation, and that cost has not only not diminished but has greatly increased.” A survey by the American Council on Education estimated that reopening this fall would add 10 percent to a college’s regular operating expenses, costing the country’s 5,000 some colleges and universities a total of $70 billion…

Some families have sued. Roy Willey, a class-action attorney in South Carolina, said his firm alone has filed at least 30 lawsuits — including against the University of California system, Columbia University and the University of Colorado — charging universities with breach of contract for switching in-person instruction to online classes, and is closely monitoring the fall semester…

A handful of universities have announced substantial price cuts… But most colleges have kept prices flat, and a few have even increased them. They can’t afford to do otherwise without mass faculty layoffs, said Robert Kelchen, a Seton Hall University associate professor of higher education…

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