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As colleges move classes online, families rebel against the cost

A nearly-empty Harvard campus in July. Roughly a fifth of Harvard’s first-year class has deferred admission.Tony Luong/The New York Times

After Southern California’s soaring coronavirus caseload this month forced Chapman University to abruptly abandon plans to reopen its campus and shift to an autumn of all-remote instruction, the school promised that students would still get a “robust Chapman experience.”

“What about a robust refund?” Christopher Moore, a spring graduate, retorted on Facebook.

A parent chimed in.

“We are paying a lot of money for tuition, and our students are not getting what we paid for,” wrote Shannon Carducci, whose youngest child, Ally, is a sophomore at Chapman, where the cost of attendance averages $65,000 a year.

Back when they believed that Ally would be attending classes in person, her parents leased her a $1,200-a-month apartment. Now, Carducci said, she plans to ask for a tuition discount.


A rebellion against the high cost of a bachelor’s degree, already brewing around the nation before the coronavirus, has gathered fresh momentum as campuses have strained to operate in the pandemic. Incensed at paying face-to-face prices for education that is increasingly online, students and their parents are demanding tuition rebates, increased financial aid, reduced fees, and leaves of absences to compensate for what they feel will be a diminished college experience.

At Rutgers University, more than 30,000 people have signed a petition started in July calling for an elimination of fees and a 20 percent tuition cut. More than 40,000 have signed a plea for the University of North Carolina system to refund housing charges to students in the event of another COVID-19-related campus shutdown. The California State University system’s early decision to go online-only this fall has incited calls for price cuts at campuses from Fullerton to San Jose.

At Ithaca College — student population, 5,500 — the financial services team reports more than 2,000 queries in the past month about financial aid and tuition adjustments. Some 340 Harvard University freshmen — roughly a fifth of the first-year class — deferred admission rather than possibly spending part of the year online, and a parents’ lobbying group, formed on Facebook last month, has asked the administration to reduce tuition and relax rules for leaves of absence.


Universities have been divided in their response, with some offering discounts but most resisting, arguing that remote learning and other virus measures are making their operations more, not less, costly at a time when higher education is already struggling.

“These are unprecedented times, and more and more families are needing more and more financial assistance to enroll in college,” said Terry W. Hartle, a senior vice president for the American Council on Education, a higher education trade group. “But colleges also need to survive.”

The roster of colleges that have rescinded plans to reopen their classrooms has been growing by the day. In the past two weeks, the University of Maryland, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California, the University of Virginia, Princeton University, and a host of other colleges announced plans to hold all or most of their classes online. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, less than a quarter of the nation’s 5,000 colleges are committed to providing instruction primarily or completely in person.

Chapman’s president, Daniele Struppa, said the university spent $20 million on technology and public health retrofits for the fall semester, and he estimates that the switch to an online fall will cost the school $110 million in revenue. He has cut spending “brutally” from the $400 million annual budget, he said, freezing hires, slashing expenses, canceling construction of a new gym, ending the retirement match to employees, and giving up 20 percent of his own $720,000 base salary.


Only students who can demonstrate financial need will get help, he is telling families.

A survey by the American Council on Education estimated that reopening this fall would add 10 percent to a college’s regular operating expenses, costing the country’s 5,000 some colleges and universities a total of $70 billion.

“For institutions,” said Hartle, who lobbies for the council, “this is a perfect storm.”

Students are feeling tempest tossed, too.

Temple University sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the school’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, said the organization has been “bombarded” with pleas for help from students who can’t cover their rent and don’t know how to apply for food stamps. At least a third of students had lost jobs because of the pandemic by May, according to the center.

Such situations, Goldrick-Rab said, are particularly risky because they often prompt students to take on second or third jobs or to become distracted, which in turn imperils financial aid that can be revoked if their grades fall.

Laurie Koehler, vice president for enrollment strategy at Ithaca College, said about 1 in 6 students reported in a just-completed survey that the pandemic had significantly hurt their ability to continue their studies. At Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., the school’s president, Alison Byerly, said she expects requests for additional financial aid to grow by up to 15 percent this year.


But the shift online also has accelerated fundamental questions about the future of higher education, said the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, Marguerite Roza. “This is a moment,” said Roza, “that is basically forcing students and parents to say, ‘What is the value? If I can’t set foot on campus, is that the same value?’ ”