When Rutgers University announced most of its fall classes would be online amid the coronavirus pandemic, rising junior Shreya Patel checked for details on the school’s website. “Will we get a refund?” she looked up in the Frequently Asked Questions section.
“They said no. That obviously made me mad,” Patel told CNN.
“It just doesn’t make sense to be paying such a high amount for something that’s not being used to the full advantage.”
Patel started a petition in July to lower fees at the university in New Jersey, where in-state tuition costs $11,600 and out-of-state students pay $27,560 a year. She got nearly 31,000 signatures, and the college did reduce campus fees by 15% but left tuition unchanged.
Rutgers said it recognized the economic stresses faced by its community, but pointed out that costs were rising for almost all its operations.
“Tuition and fees are set at the minimum amount required to provide our 70,000 students with a world-class education,” it said in a statement to CNN. “A robust Rutgers education, whether delivered in a remote, hybrid or in-person fashion, is comprehensive and is provided by some of the finest scholars in American higher education.”
What’s happening at Rutgers is being replicated at colleges across the country as administrators and educators try to launch the new academic year and students and their families decide what that teaching is worth.
Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University who opposes high tuition costs, believes students like Patel are right to be outraged.
“Universities have backed themselves into a corner,” he told CNN. “We have raised tuition on average 2 1/2-fold over the last 20 years. I think Covid-19 was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, where families across America are saying, ‘Enough already. We’re not going to pay $58,000 for Zoom classes.’ “
More than 75% of the country’s 5,000 colleges are expected to be partially or fully online this fall, according to a count by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
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Some, like Rutgers, have cut campus fees. Others including Williams College, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Georgetown, Spelman and Clark Atlanta University have dropped tuition costs, sometimes more for those choosing to study from home.
But the majority of schools, from state institutions including Temple University and the University of Massachusetts, to elite universities like Harvard and Stanford, are keeping tuition as is.
Terry Hartle, an advocate for higher education as senior vice president of the American Council on Education, praised the swift and early action by colleges to keep their communities safe and defended their financial decisions.
“I think universities handled this about as well as they could possibly have handled it,” he said. “Every institution of higher education … has suffered significant revenue losses. Room and board revenue has fallen, other auxiliary revenue – the conference center, the summer camps, the international students, the hotel, the bookstore – all of those have just largely disappeared.”
Hartle said schools will likely increase financial aid for students in need, but slashing fees should not be expected.
“They would need to make further adjustments in their expenses, which would probably mean things like laying off more faculty and staff, which in higher education is the equivalent of throwing away your seed corn,” he said. A university, it’s ultimately a collection of highly educated, very talented people in the business of transmitting knowledge.”
Galloway suggested that more online learning could even drive down future tuition costs.
“It is time to embrace technology, lower costs and move education back to what it used to be. And that is upward mobility for the middle class,” he said. “This is overdue.”
Hartle said, in the end, parents and students should approach their decision about the fall, and perhaps even spring of 2021, as consumers.
“Is it worth it to me to go to school this fall, or should I take a semester off?” he said.
He acknowledged taking semesters off would not be the first choice for universities. “But if we would choose, nobody would be living in this pandemic,” he added.
Still, millions of students like Shreya Patel face a fall semester without campus life, but still with their bank account depleted.
“I don’t think the well-being of a billion-dollar institution should be compared to students who are severely struggling,” she said. “They might not be able to survive, but I know that Rutgers has the capacity to make it through this just fine.”