US universities are charging full fees for 'virtual' class this fall. This is absurd

Ross Barkan
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Charles Krupa/AP</span>
Photograph: Charles Krupa/AP

Colleges and universities are in an unprecedented bind. Coronavirus continues to rage in many parts of America, making the sort of communal gatherings that are hallmarks of collegiate life outright dangerous. Lecture halls, libraries, football games and dorm-room parties can all be superspreader events.

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Some educational institutions have already declared that almost the entire academic year will occur remotely, while others are forging on with in-person learning. Two of the schools I teach at, NYU and St Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, are attempting the latter, which will carry its own risks, depending on how New York City progresses in its continuing battle to keep infection rates low.

For schools that have decided against most in-person instruction, the caution exercised is understandable. The University of California system, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Rutgers have all declared that the bulk of their course offerings will be online. But about 60% of schools nationwide are still planning an in-person start to the year.

What they all aren’t doing is reducing tuition, even though a significant portion of the value these educational institutions provide is now lost indefinitely. Only Princeton has offered a 10% price cut. Harvard, with its $40bn endowment, is still charging full tuition. So are Rutgers and the University of California schools, both public universities.

Though they charge less than private institutions, Rutgers or a University of California school aren’t cheap. In-state students at California public universities still pay about $14,000 a year to attend. At Rutgers, in New Jersey, in-state students pay a little more than $12,000. (At both schools, out-of-state tuition is far higher, more than $40,000 and $30,000 respectively.)

Remote learning, no matter how well-intentioned, is a diluted product, and students deserve a tuition reduction for sitting at home and staring at a laptop screen. As someone who taught remotely this past semester, I strained to provide a comparable experience to what students were used to. Ultimately I could not. Professors cannot connect with students in the same way. And the ancillary benefits of college – making friends, networking with peers, joining clubs, playing intramural sports – are all lost.

College costs have soared, and now almost every institution, in the age of coronavirus, faces a reckoning

There is an argument that students, especially at prestige schools, are still getting the value of a degree and therefore should pay the full freight. Isn’t the diploma ultimately what matters? But that’s not how colleges and universities pitch themselves to unsuspecting freshmen.

College life is not merely about scoring a dream job right after graduation. It’s supposed to be an experience. Behold our manicured lawns, our successful basketball team, our state-of-the-art fitness center, the newly revamped computer lab – and pay dearly for them. Part of the tradeoff of taking on crippling debt is supposed to be the creation of unforgettable memories, those four life-changing years you’ll never have again. Remote learning promises none of that.

Public schools are in a tougher position than their wealthier private counterparts. Tuition is how they generate much of their revenue, particularly after decades of cost-cutting by state governments. Many states have left world-class public institutions begging for money; the cuts after the 2008 economic crash were especially deep. Without a massive federal bailout package, public universities and community colleges will be suffering for years to come, starved of tax revenue in the wake of the pandemic.

Still, these public institutions can offer tuition discounts while seeking cuts elsewhere. Fun fact: who is the highest paid public employee in the history of New Jersey? It’s Greg Schiano, the Rutgers football coach, who makes $4m annually. Rutgers, like other universities across the country, has been in an athletics arms race to match powerhouses like University of Michigan and the University of Ohio, which also happen to be public institutions. The profligate spending led Rutgers to amass a $100m athletic budget in the 2018-19 school year, running up large deficits.

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Rutgers could offer a good faith tuition reduction to students while shrinking nonessential expenditures, like athletics. The same could be done at the University of California system, where the two crown jewels, UCLA and UC Berkeley, had massive athletic deficits during the 2019 fiscal year.

College costs have soared over the decades for a variety of reasons – declining public aid, expensive athletics, increased demand, and the rising cost of staff, particularly those not tied to the faculty – and now almost every institution, in the age of coronavirus, faces a reckoning. They can continue to overcharge students. Or they can attempt a measure of economic justice at a time when, from the White House on down, it’s utterly lacking.

  • Ross Barkan is a writer based in New York City