US universities are charging full fees for ‘virtual’ class this fall.

Schools with huge endowments are pretending remote learning is the same experience as learning together with your fellow students. Excuse me?  Harvard is one of the colleges who will offer the bulk of their courses online. But they refuse to reduce the cost of tuition.

Colleges and universities are in a 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.

Some educational institutions have already declared that almost the entire academic year will occur remotely, while others are forging on with in-person learning.  For schools that have decided against 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. About  60% of schools are meanwhile still planning an in-person start to the year.

What colleges are not doing is reducing tuition costs, 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.)  Altogether, college costs have soared, and now almost every institution, in the age of coronavirus, faces a reckoning.

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.  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.

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. Greg Schiano, the Rutgers football coach, for instance, makes an astonishing $4m annually!   The athletics arms race means that scores of colleges, like Rutgers, have run up huge deficits.

College costs have soared over the decades owing to declining public aid, expensive athletics, increased demand, and the rising cost of staff.  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 , The Guardián July 11 2020. ( lightly edited for length)

My take: Start with taking a good look shrinking nonessential expenditures like athletics.  But to charge for in-person tuition and only offer the internet is downright dishonest.  Meanwhile, note the author’s question , “Isn’t the diploma ultimately what matters?” No, the objective is to educate you, to learn critical thinking, to set you up for a lifetime of learning.  All that seems to matter is the piece of paper, alias a “ job”.  Don’t get me started!

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