COVID-19: US colleges in balancing-act over tuition cuts

Factual Pursuit of Truth for Progress


University students across the United States have continued to express displeasure over tuition charges despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

In early 2020, abrupt school closures in the US was geared at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus, but it also shunted access to on-campus resources and forced institutions to default learning online for instructional continuity.

At Columbia University, students are holding a strike action after more than 1000 students in the institution pledged not to pay Spring 2021 tuition. Their frustration is over the continued silence of administrators on the subject of tuition cuts and their inability to slash tuition in the Ivy League that approximates $80,000 for online Zoom classes.

At Georgetown University, tuition discounts were awarded to undergraduate (10%) and graduate students (5%) in the Fall 2020 semester. Yet, graduate students are calling on the board of directors to demand equality in the financial cuts, citing that limitations brought about by virtual classes and their impact on the student experience cut across.

A student-led coalition ‘Tuition Equality Now’ has called for students, alumni, faculty and unaffiliated supporters to pledge support and advocate for graduate tuition equality by signing a solidarity letter.

“The disparity between the tuition discount awarded blatantly disregards the limited access to campus resources, networking opportunities, and community that both undergraduate and graduate students face in an online environment.” TEN said in an open call for signatures.

The group has also questioned the allocation of CARES Act funding, which it said 50% of the total amount received by Georgetown university have not been accounted for. The CARES Act established the $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund with $14 billion earmarked as Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) and allocated to institutions of higher education based on the number of students with high financial need and total students enrolled.

Georgetown University said it has spent up to $3.055 million of the student portion (50%) of its CARES Act funding, with 90% of the funds disbursed as undergraduate grants.

With colleges across the country tackling tuition planning under COVID-19 conditions, setting tuition prices that are fair and providing coherent explanation or constructive communication on the decision-making will proved a herculean task for US institutions.

Many have pointed out an extreme hypothetical that ‘there will be no institutions without students’ and this is carved out of the reality that student tuition and fees account for almost half of a university’s annual revenue.

An empty campus due to the virus is already devastating to academic life. These vulnerabilities brought about by dwindling finances and widespread economic meltdown, threatens the existence of academic establishments as a whole.

Universities are wading off a public health crisis alongside avoiding a financial one with budgets spread thin.

Students are becoming less committed to studying remotely. Little can be promised (at the moment) of a return to status quo or hybrid-classes to allow a mix of in-person and remote learning. These options are less feasible due to the associated risks of the pandemic.

For residential Universities like South Carolina, institutional heads have been forced to reflect on investments in new construction and athletics following the COVID-19 lockdowns. With the pandemic situation, many large universities are squeezing immediate need for contact tracing, free student testing, and e-learning software application into their tight budget. The situation is also creating angst for faculty and university staff who risk losing livelihood where job cuts are imminent.

On the other hand, growing financial constraints have put students and families in a position to rethink their spending. Students are openly renegotiating the value of online education against its hefty price tag.

Tuition cuts now directly translate increased enrollment. At 10% discount for the Spring 2021 semester, universities like Princeton and Johns Hopkins have acknowledged the said changes in student experience.

“We understand that this is a time of great uncertainty and unrest,” President Michael Sorrell wrote in a letter, after Paul Quinn College, a historically black college in Dallas, slashed its Spring tuition by nearly 30%.

Southern New Hampshire University took a bold step and placed a temporary hold on tuition payment altogether by offering free enrollment for freshmen beginning this new semester – its largest cohort in SNHU history according to the school.

While reopening schools for experiential learning remains stochastic, arriving at a reasonable tuition price point is the determinant in the ongoing permutation.

Students across the country, by their actions, have shown willingness to enter into a conversation on the difficult subject. Will institutions engage internally or evolve to open policy deliberations for national discourse?



Evelyn Dan Epelle (B.Eng, M.A) is an International Monetary Fund (IMF) Youth Fellow.


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