Read or watch the plethora of COVID-19 stories coming at us each day and you are bound to notice an increase in the reporting of college students and their families calling for a lowering of tuition as online instruction replaces face-to-face in this era of social distancing. And some colleges are beginning to respond.
Southern New Hampshire University, undoubtedly because of profits made from its massive online offerings, is offering free tuition to traditional freshmen next year. Other institutions are talking about reductions in the 10 percent to 15 percent range. On the surface, and certainly to the uninitiated, that may seem to make sense. Students say, “This is not what I signed up for” and “The college experience is so much more than sitting in front of a computer.”
And they are right. But a traditional four-year college experience is more than curricular instruction. And it is instruction and academic support, not the total “college experience,” that is primarily covered by tuition.
Clearly, increases in tuitions have significantly outpaced growth in family income over the past 15 years. Although average grant aid has increased about 75 percent during that same period, many families still struggle with college costs. This is an important issue to resolve, but it is not what the current conversation is about. Families are now demanding a lower tuition specifically for online versus in-person instruction.
I realize that taking a position against a tuition reduction for temporary online instruction will not be a popular one, especially among parents and students and also among some of my enrollment colleagues and college presidents. I totally understand their concerns, the market pressures to lower tuition in this environment and the financial challenges that many families face due to the pandemic. Those families include, by the way, faculty and staff members at colleges and universities who are furloughed or laid off because institutional revenue falls way short of the cost to operate the institution, a position that would be exacerbated by a tuition decrease for all.
Historically, families who cannot afford the price of college have been awarded need-based financial aid to make up most of the difference. What I advocate is not a “business as usual with no financial relief” approach but rather one that is more equitable. Instead of reducing tuition for all when the cost of educating a student has not decreased, colleges and universities should be prepared to help individual students and their families who have suffered financially due to COVID-19.
Looked at another way, and from experience at an institution that lowered its tuition several years ago, unless there is additional family financial need, financial aid typically decreases when price decreases. In other words, a lower price at the same family contribution means a lower need and hence less aid, leaving the net price paid the same as it would have been under a higher tuition. Therefore, those who stand to benefit the most from a tuition reduction are not families in dire financial straits, but rather families who have not taken a significant financial hit during the pandemic and who can still afford the original price charged. Whether they are willing to pay that price is, of course, a different story. They may vote with their feet, so the lowering of tuition then becomes an offensive strategy to keep that from happening.
Of course, a herd mentality is likely to result in a number of institutions lowering their tuition simply to be competitive in the marketplace rather than because it’s the right thing to do. These are, however, extraordinary times, and we can certainly understand why college leaders might move in this direction.
With that as background, here are five reasons, regardless of market pressures, why lowering tuition in the wake of COVID-19 is not a good idea and what I would say to those students and families who are demanding it.
Fixed costs. Let’s get the most debatable reason out of the way first. Colleges have fixed costs related to instruction. They have faculty members who do the teaching, counselors who do the advising, tutors who help students and other academic support expenses. Such expenses do not go away just because instruction has moved online. Those real costs to colleges are covered by tuition. Costs do not decline when instruction shifts online. The price charged, then, cannot be reduced, either.
Students may argue that online instruction should cost colleges less, that teaching from home is less expensive than ramping up campus facilities and labs. To be sure, colleges don’t have to pay for certain expenses when campuses are vacant, especially with respect to energy and daily maintenance. But other new costs are likely to eat up those potential facility savings quickly.
Online instruction isn’t just Zoom. Colleges and universities moved with deliberate speed this spring to put all of their classes online. Some institutions with a history of online teaching were better prepared than others, but they all incurred additional expenses. And to be effective, online instruction involves more than listening to a live lecture on Zoom or a recorded lecture over a PowerPoint. It requires investing in course management software that allows an instructor to assign work and provide, in some cases, automatic feedback. The software tracks student progress and allows for sharing of observations on student discussion boards. Through it, assignments are submitted and graded, and everything is neatly organized for the student in manageable chunks. And it is not free.
Admittedly, in the rush to get professors ready to teach remotely this spring, many colleges were not prepared to transition to a total online experience. But if they begin their fall semesters remotely, they will have to devote the summer months to getting online right. And that will require further investments.
Institutions will need instructional technology staff to make sure that each course is fully supported by a course management system. Staff members will need to be available to help professors when glitches occur in delivery. Each professor, along with the department chair, will have to determine the ratio of live to recorded classes, and IT staff will need to be present to assure that the integration occurs without a hitch. These are additional instructional costs that would not be incurred with on-campus instruction.
Done right, the quality of instruction online is not inferior. Last year I taught a graduate class online. I will do so again this summer. The class consisted of 13 prerecorded lectures, a significant amount of reading each week, a weekly assignment, a required posting on a discussion board and three hours of live instruction/class discussion each week, followed by a final project. For part of each live class, students were divided into discussion groups, facilitated by virtual breakout rooms. Students were coming to the class from all over the country. They got to know each other well and often chatted between class sessions.
If I were teaching in person, there would be no prerecorded lecture. Instead, half of each in-person class would be taken up by the lecture, and there would be less time for discussion and small group problem solving. There would be no required discussion board where students could talk about the issues they are having with the weekly assignment or an important point they wanted to contest or emphasize from the reading. In fact, at least for my class, (which was small and at the graduate level) I would say that students learned more because it was online.
Finally, the amount of work for faculty to teach online is at least as much if not greater than in-person instruction. Getting the total course built in the online platform in advance so students can progress at their own pace, providing weekly grading and feedback to make sure students are keeping up with the assignments and are mastering the material, and being available by email and phone to answer questions -- all of that requires faculty time, preplanning and consistent execution. Students are, in fact, getting what they are paying for.
Tuition generally doesn’t cover out-of-class experiences. The benefits of college that are so valuable to student growth and development and that extend beyond what is learned in the classroom are generally not covered by tuition. Student activity fees, athletic fees and room and meal-plan charges pay for the bulk of the noninstructional experiences on campuses.
The student newspaper, radio station and ultimate Frisbee club are paid for through student activity fees. Programming in the residence halls is covered through room fees. Taco Tuesday and the events in the dining hall around theme nights are often paid for through board charges. They all have little to do with the direct cost of instruction and academic support that tuition dollars cover. So when students and their families complain that they shouldn’t have to pay a certain level of tuition when such activities aren’t available to them, we should explain that tuition doesn’t pay for them, anyway.
And let’s not forget about scholarships and financial aid. Last, but certainly not least, national data show that 85 percent of undergraduates at four-year public and nonprofit private colleges and universities receive financial aid and/or “merit” scholarships. If we exclude the 20 percent of American colleges and universities that admit fewer than half of their applicants (because they are in demand, they offer fewer discounts), the percentage is likely higher. So basically, when students and families assert that they should not be paying full tuition for online instruction, we should note that very few families pay the full price for in-person instruction to begin with. They are already getting a price break.
While a good portion of this financial assistance is awarded to lure otherwise financially capable families to choose one institution over another, much of it is still based on the legitimate financial needs of families. Rather than lowering tuition when their instructional costs have not declined, colleges and universities that are already losing significant revenue from student fees, room rent and board charges should work with families individually to help those who have suffered financially in this crisis. They should do this equitably on a case-by-case basis, using a combination of their own resources, funds from the federal stimulus package earmarked for student assistance and various extended payment options to help families in need.
A Final Word
During this pandemic, lives have been taken and jobs have been lost, creating undue stress and hardships for most Americans and indeed for people throughout the world. Colleges are not exempt from these hardships, nor are the students they serve.
Students need to understand that the very existence of their college may be at stake as the economic fallout from the pandemic becomes apparent. Meanwhile, colleges must do all they can to help students through this difficult time so that they can complete their education, earn their degree and launch their lives. Ultimately, that is what students and families want, and that is what their tuition dollars make possible.