As more universities abandon plans to reopen and decide instead to keep classes online this fall, conflicts are arising between students who say they deserve tuition discounts and college leaders who insist remote learning is worth the full cost.
Disputes are flaring both at colleges that announced weeks ago they would go completely virtual and at those that only recently gave up hope of reopening their campuses.
In petitions started at dozens of universities, students arguing for reduced tuition say online classes fail to deliver the same experience they get on campus. Video lectures are stilted and awkward, they say, and there’s little personal connection with professors or classmates.
Many schools, however, respond that they have improved online classes since the spring.
At Michigan State University, senior Tyler Weisner said the online classes he took last spring were less effective than what he gets on campus.
Weisner, who started a petition to reduce tuition, said he’s also missing out on many of the benefits of college.
“You’re paying that price tag because colleges bring students from all over the country together, to experience different cultures,” he said.
“People don’t just choose strictly off education or the professor. They want a nice place to live and a new experience.”
Similar petitions have been started at schools from Rutgers University in New Jersey to the University of Southern California.
Plans to continue virtual instruction this fall are further angering many students who were frustrated by the experience of studying online last spring, when colleges across the U.S. abruptly sent students home as the pandemic intensified.
Students at more than 100 colleges have filed lawsuits demanding partial refunds.
Some colleges lowered tuition as they moved classes online.
Several universities in Washington, D.C., lowered prices by 10 percent, including Georgetown University. Princeton University also cut tuition by 10 percent. In Massachusetts, Williams College announced a 15 percent discount after moving to a mix of online and in-person classes.
Others, however, have refused.
Harvard University is charging full tuition, about $50,000 per year, even though all undergraduate classes will be online this fall. The Ivy League school invited freshmen to live on campus while taking classes online, but about 20 percent have deferred enrollment, the university announced.
Many colleges had hoped to bring students back, with major modifications. But after outbreaks at some of the first campuses to reopen, some are scrapping their plans.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill halted in-person instruction this past week after 130 students tested positive for the virus. The university is letting students cancel their housing contracts without penalty, and it’s reimbursing students for their meal plans, officials said.
But students will still be on the hook for hundreds of dollars in fees that aren’t likely to benefit them, including $279 for athletics, $400 for student health, more than $200 for campus transit and $160 for student union center operations.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Mackenzie Holland, a freshman who left UNC on Tuesday.
“All of those funds go to things that are specifically on campus, and I can’t utilize any of those things.”
At Michigan State, officials said they have no plans to lower tuition.
They said other schools are cutting costs by leaning on part-time faculty or student assistants. Instead, Michigan State said it has invested in technology and faculty training to improve remote instruction.
“Regardless of the format of instruction, MSU is delivering what students pay for: courses taught by high qualified and world-class faculty, tutoring services, office hours, academic advising and access to our libraries,” spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said.
Michigan State said the decision to keep classes online will cost the school millions in lost housing revenue.
Industry experts warn that many colleges were on shaky financial ground even before the pandemic, and some predict that dozens of colleges could be forced to close within a year.
At Ithaca College, junior Meghan Marzella said there’s no reason students should pay fees for the fitness center and library if they won’t be on campus.
“Tuition covers so much more than just classes,” according to Marzella, who started a petition to reduce prices.
“The reality of the situation is, we’re still paying for things that we can’t access.”
At the University of New Mexico, students face a tuition increase even though the school is offering a mix of online and remote classes.
Senior Ava Yelton, who helped lead a protest against the increase, said it’s unethical to charge more when students are getting less.
“The question is why are we paying the same amount — if not more — for way, way less?” she asked.
“I know this is what’s best for public safety, but there’s no doubt the level of learning is lower online.”
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