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By Joanna Nesbit
August 4, 2020
Shutterstock

Tuition payments at Texas A&M University come due in just 10 days. But rising junior Hayley Jarjoura — and more than 8,000 of her fellow Aggies — don’t think they should have to pay the full rate for online classes and reduced access to campus services.

In early July, Jarjoura and her friends organized a petition after Jarjoura saw student concerns about costs popping up on Twitter. It’s one of many petitions that have circulated online over the summer, calling for tuition and fees reductions from universities.

“A lot of students are hurting for jobs right now,” Jarjoura, a computer engineering major, says. “People work over the summer and save for the fall, but that wasn’t really possible this year.”

As campus reopening plans shift by the day and the number of Americans out-of-work remains at record levels, colleges are navigating loud demands from students across the nation to reduce the cost of attendance, particularly for online courses. To ease hardships caused by the pandemic, Texas A&M is eliminating its distance learning fee for online classes, which ranges from $40 to $550, but it doesn’t plan to reduce tuition or fees.

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Dozens of other institutions, though, have frozen 2020-21 tuition rates to help address financial concerns, including public universities in Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, and North Carolina. Private colleges, such as Lehigh, Bucknell, and just this week, Duke University, decided to reverse earlier planned tuition increases and keep prices flat for the year.

A much smaller set of colleges, meanwhile, has said they’ll reduce costs. Georgetown University, George Washington University, and Whitman College all announced in the past two weeks that they’d cut tuition by 10% (generally, just for students who aren’t studying on campus). Spelman College reduced tuition 10% for all students and also slashed mandatory fees by 40%, saving students about $1,600 in fees. Still, students on financial aid might not pay a lower price if a college adjusts their financial aid down to reflect the new costs.

“By and large, the colleges that have announced tuition cuts are among those few dozen wealthiest colleges, as well as a few HBCUs,” says Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. Most institutions can’t afford to reduce tuition across the board, he says. Instead, colleges may respond with individually revised financial aid packages.

That’s the path the University of Washington is taking. The university created a special circumstances Covid-19 financial aid form to address need, while simultaneously voting in a 2% tuition and fees increase, about $280 per student. Other Washington-state universities also plan tuition and fee increases and will handle financial aid case-by-case.

Reducing fees for services that aren’t open, like a campus recreation center, might seem obvious, but it’s not always that simple.

“Some fees are tied to bonds or debt service,” says Dustin Weeden, senior policy analyst at SHEEO. Colleges might need to charge the fees to make their debt payments.

Emelia Martinez, a rising senior at University of California, Riverside, wants to see tuition and fees frozen across the nation. In her role as director of partnerships and special projects for Rise, a student-led organization that advocates for college access and has 40,000 members, Martinez is leading an action campaign calling for a national moratorium on tuition and fee increases for any institution that receives federal dollars for coronavirus relief.

“I am sensitive to the unprecedented situation that colleges are in, particularly public universities,” she says, “but we just want to know colleges are prioritizing us, the students.” The first in her family to go to college, she hopes students work with their universities to push for more higher education funding from Congress with a unified voice.

Tuition freezes at public universities don’t represent a large savings for most students. At North Carolina State University, for example, the savings for incoming, in-state freshmen is about $275. But amid the current recession and scrutiny of the cost of online classes, it’s certainly more palatable than a tuition increase. More than 9 in 10 students surveyed by study guide provider OneClass last month said they shouldn’t have to pay full freight for online classes.

During the Great Recession, by comparison, institutions tended to raise tuition because families were more willing to pay, Kelchen says. On one hand, they were getting the traditional campus experience then. But even outside the online element of the pandemic, pressure has mounted over the last 5 years to freeze tuition as education costs have increasingly outpaced income, he says. According to Weeden, some colleges were operating with tuition freezes prior to the coronavirus in part to attract students.

Now, just as colleges need to raise revenue to offset hemorrhaging state and institutional budgets due to the pandemic, many are simultaneously announcing shifts to online classes that complicate introducing price increases, Weeden says.

“Institutions are in a tough spot because they’re afraid if they raise tuition to generate more revenue, that will cause students to forgo attending,” he says.

But freezing tuition can have consequences, too. “The question becomes if an institution was expecting to increase tuition 3% a year, do they increase tuition by 3% next year or by 6%?” Kelchen says.

Limiting how colleges can bring in revenue has actually been shown to make college less affordable in the long-term, says Sarah Pingel, senior policy analyst at Education Commission of the States. That’s because it can lead to larger jumps in tuition when rates do change.

Remote classes, however, pose an unprecedented model for residential colleges, and colleges are aware students are unhappy. As more colleges move courses online, they may be more likely to adjust mandatory fees, which are more easily modified than tuition rates, Weeden says.

For families whose students don’t qualify for financial aid, paying full tuition for virtual classes at a private college is a bitter pill to swallow. One parent of a University of Pennsylvania student, who didn’t want his name published, is paying attention to other elite private institutions’ adjustments, and says he wants Penn to take note.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, committed to giving every undergraduate student a $5,000 one-time grant to apply to their bill and will freeze tuition rates for the year. Princeton has reduced prices by 10%, and Williams College, by 15%.

But at UPenn, full-pay students are on deck to pay $60,000 this year for remote classes, a rate that includes a 3.9% tuition hike. Three Penn petitions are circulating, include this one and this one, which says families sacrifice to afford Penn because of the interactions between students and faculty, services, student activities, and other intangible benefits of studying and living on campus.

It goes on to read: “We think we can all agree that our students will not receive many of these benefits we would expect from their Penn education – in the foreseeable future.”

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Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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