US universities under pressure to cut fees because of remote learning

Christel Deskins

Jackson Butler received an unexpected boost this week after growing frustration that his final year at Georgetown University would be largely taught online with limited access to its Washington DC base. “It’s very clear we’ll have a diminished experience,” he said. “There will be no extracurricular activities and we won’t […]

Jackson Butler received an unexpected boost this week after growing frustration that his final year at Georgetown University would be largely taught online with limited access to its Washington DC base.

“It’s very clear we’ll have a diminished experience,” he said. “There will be no extracurricular activities and we won’t be able to access resources on campus.”

But after organising a petition of 2,000 students accusing Georgetown of “highway robbery” for maintaining its tuition fees at nearly $58,000 a year, the university backed down and offered a 10 per cent discount.

Georgetown has become one of just a handful of elite US institutions to make such a gesture, with most resisting calls for discounts as they brace themselves for the hefty impact of coronavirus on their own budgets.

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Georgetown’s move adds to pressure on institutions around the world to make concessions to students who feel short-changed by what they say will be an inferior online university experience. Some hope it would strengthen efforts to seek reimbursements on fees for the year just ended, but which was curtailed when the pandemic struck.

Princeton University last month reduced annual fees by 10 per cent to $48,500 to compensate for offering undergraduates half their normal time on campus in the coming year and half remotely.

“We recognise there’s a difference in what we can deliver remote and on campus. It wasn’t possible for us to offer all students a place on campus for both semesters,” said Christopher Eisgruber, Princeton’s president.

Williams College in Massachusetts has put in place a 15 per cent cut in total charges, or just over 10 per cent for tuition to $50,450. Dukes Love, the university’s provost, said that while teaching quality would be unchanged, the reduction reflected the fact that student would not have the “full residential college experience”, such as athletics and music. “These are not just a side component for our students, they’re really fundamental,” he said.

But other US universities have resisted cuts and even maintained increases in fees, while some are finding ways to offer concessions without losing revenues. Yale University raised tuition from $55,500 to $57,700 in the coming academic year but waived some lodging costs and offered credits for two summer session courses in compensation.

Others such as Harvard University have ruled out reductions. It increased tuition fees by 3.5 per cent for the coming year to $57,384 despite student protests. “Harvard sees me as a dollar sign, and not a person,” wrote one student on a petition currently circulating. The university did not respond to requests to comment.

The problem for many universities is that they face a substantial drop in revenues from student enrolments and grant funding. This is leading to deferred spending, budget cuts and, in some cases, potential closure. President Donald Trump’s efforts to restrict visas for foreign students learning online have added pressure.

Similar situations are taking place beyond the US, notably in English language countries with higher fees including Australia and Canada. In the UK, the National Union of Students has called for a “safety net” that would allow students to re-do a portion of their studies at no extra cost, write-off some of their debt or receive partial fee reimbursement.

An NUS spokesperson said: “It’s shocking that some universities are telling students outright that they will not be able to defer their studies for coronavirus-related reasons. These universities are putting their own financial stability over the welfare and experience of students, and must change these policies immediately.”

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at Oxford university, expressed sympathy with resistance to cutting fees. “When we’re unsure of what we can provide safely, and might have to go suddenly into online mode, we’re carrying costs in both modes,” he said.

But it is in the US where the debate for discounts rages loudest, given the relatively high level and wide variation in fees and in some cases significant financial endowments — as high as $50bn at Harvard — that critics argue should be used to cushion short-term costs.

Steve Berman, a lawyer overseeing more than 20 class action lawsuits seeking refunds at various universities, pointed out that before the pandemic, many schools offered online courses at about a tenth of the price of in-person teaching.

“The schools themselves realise [online] isn’t as valuable but they’re charging the full price when not delivering the full menu. We think that’s a breach of the promise they owe families,” he said.

Mr Eisgruber at Princeton had little sympathy for retrospective actions. “We had students for three-quarters of the year on campus and the last quarter we were prohibited by law from in-person instruction. We moved very rapidly by ourselves to deliver education in the best possible fashion under the circumstances and had additional expenses,” he said.

Yet while there was a short-term disruption and additional cost to switch online teaching, others believe such an argument will not be sustainable if remote study becomes the norm.

“With a significantly reduced value proposition, you should not be surprised that people will ask for lower fees,” said Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD. “In the long run, the unbundling of educational content, delivery and accreditation through digitalisation will make that inevitable anyway.”

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