Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Colleges Should Give a Partial Tuition Refund to Students for the Spring 2020 Semester

By Hannah RitterPublished June 2, 2020

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Due to the coronavirus pandemic, students at high-cost universities were sent home halfway through the semester to continue the semester online. This unexpected switch to online instruction exposed the quality differential between in-person and online schooling, as students are lacking the services that their tuitions are supposed to provide. Universities should give students partial tuition refunds prorated for the amount of time spent in online instruction because students are not receiving the quality of education promised by their high-cost tuitions.

When students and universities commenced this semester this January, both parties did not anticipate that a global pandemic would force colleges to send students home and carry out online instruction. This unprecedented time has forced universities and professors to quickly adopt online learning for the rest of the semester, and they have tried their best to make the instruction comparable to the in-person instruction that students paid for. Despite these attempts, many students argue that this virtual learning is “subpar education instruction”, pointing to the loss of opportunities and on-campus resources that the part of the tuition accounts for. While many schools, including Columbia University, Cornell University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are providing housing and meal planrefunds to compensate for the unused services, students still feel cheated out of the services that their tuition paid for. Students are demanding partial tuition, either through class-action lawsuits, petitions, or other forms of collective action; however, colleges are refusing to meet their demands. It is unethical for colleges to accept students’ tuition money if students cannot access all of the services and facilities that this tuition buys. Schools must honor student requests for partial tuition refunds for this semester, as the swift switch to online instruction did not allow colleges’ enough time to build online infrastructures to mimic the same quality of education as in-person education.

While this semester’s switch to online instruction could not have been avoided based on grave public health concerns, it is important to note that taking online classes negatively affects student grades and retention rates. This is one reason why students should be awarded partial tuition refunds. First, taking online instruction increases the likelihood of students dropping out. In addition, based on a studyat Devry University, Brookings Institute found that taking an online course caused student grade point averages to decrease by 0.44 points (on the 4.0 scale). For example, students would likely receive half of a letter grade lowerif they enroll in an online class, so students who would receive a B- in an in-person class would receive a C if they took the same class online. The study even found profound effects on students’ GPA the semester afterthey take an online course. Unfortunately, online instruction disparately affects lower performing students, as their grades decrease by 0.5 points or more when taking online courses. This proves that online instruction is inherently differential in quality to in-person teaching, and it can reduce student achievement, furthering the case for partial tuition refunds for online instruction.

Moreover, students are missing out on the resources that their tuition paid for. For example, students taking biomedical science courses have to pay for more expensive classes due to high-cost labs, equipment, and biological samples which they can no longer access due to at-home instruction. This is an example of how many majors, especially those that depend on hands-on learnings, do not translate well to online instruction. Also, students are missing out on other services and experiences that are supposed to be provided by their tuition such as healthcare, gyms, and other on-campus services. These concerns were addressed in class action lawsuits filed by students of the California State University and the University of California, and the students argued that the universities ceased to provide services and mandatory fees that are portions of students’ tuition costs.

Although many students have signed petitions and filed class-action lawsuits against at least 26 colleges, most colleges are refusing to give partial tuition refunds for the portion of the Spring 2020 semester spent online. Many universities argued that they have to incur high costs to pay for remote learning and that they are providing the same high-quality services to students through online instruction. The colleges are situating their argument on the fact that they are facing financial strain due to the coronavirus pandemic. While it is true that colleges are facing financial straindue to decreasing enrollment, state funding, and research grants, these colleges are sitting on enormous endowments that they can tap into for these partial refunds. Many lawsuits have brought attention to the fact that many colleges have endowments that exceed $1 billion. It is important to note that students are suffering from the economic crisis as well. Many students may not be able to pay full tuition for this semester, and the financial aid systemdoes not have infrastructure capable of handling emergencies and accommodating a large portion of students. While colleges like American Universityhave already agreed to provide a 10% tuition discount for summer classes, other colleges are agreeing to tuition freezes for the upcoming fall semester. These concessions will relieve some of students’ financial burdens, nevertheless, colleges must address the current financial needs of students this semester and pay for the gaps in services offered to these students.

Universities should refund tuition similar to how colleges dealt with housing and dining refunds. The best option is to provide a mechanism by which students can request tuition refunds and honor every request. This way, students who do not need or want a tuition refund do not automatically receive one, but if they make a request, it must be fulfilled. Also, this tuition would be prorated, only compensating students for the time they spent in online instruction. This tuition refund should be a fraction of prorated tuition, considering the financial strain placed on school and acknowledging that even though it is lower in quality, colleges are providing library access and instruction by education professionals. These services cost the university, and students reap benefits from these services, so students should pay reduced-price prorated tuition for these services. In the long term, when colleges develop better ways to provide online instruction so that it matches the quality of in-person instruction, tuition will not have to be refunded. However, due to the fact that colleges were not equipped for these changes, and that the quality of instruction was compromised, students should be repaid. Additionally, we must note the implicit benefits of college that may drive students to pay for high tuition: networking, relationship building, and learning diverse perspectives from peers. If these are sacrificed by online instruction, students may not want to pay such high tuition fees. Finally, in the long term, universities should switch to menu pricing. This would allow students to opt in to access certain on-campus resources, so tuition refunds are made less complicated in the future. It also ensures a more individualized education, so that students are not paying for services that they do not use.

Student tuition partially covers on-campus resources that students have been unable to access during the online semester. Also, attending courses online sets students back academically, so students should not have to pay the same price for a lower quality education. Until colleges learn how to effectively deliver online courses and find ways to deliver the benefits of in-person instruction through virtual mechanisms, they must give partial tuition refunds or switch to menu pricing.

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