Feeling Shortchanged

College students say the online instruction they're getting in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is not the education for which they paid. Some students plan to withhold tuition payments; others are demanding partial tuition refunds.

April 13, 2020
 
UChicago for Fair Tuition
Student organizers for UChicago for Fair Tuition meet over Zoom.

Arica Kincheloe said she took a risk quitting her job and moving halfway across the country from Seattle to attend the University of Chicago’s nationally ranked master's program in social service administration.

But now that her courses for the one-year accelerated program were moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic, Kincheloe, a first-generation college graduate from a low-income background, is questioning what more than $50,000 in student loan debt will mean for her future.

“It’s a throwaway -- a shortened quarter. They took away one week of the quarter,” she said. “I do not feel like I am getting the same education that I would have otherwise. The sort of enrichment and learning that I would have in the classroom isn’t there.”

Students who were already struggling to stay afloat while managing the heavy cost of their education, which for Kincheloe exceeds $66,300 for one year, say they are being shortchanged by the online classes.

They're not alone -- students at University of California campuses and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts have echoed similar concerns about tuition not adding up to the education they were promised. Students at Miami and Drexel Universities filed a class action lawsuit for tuition refunds, but most colleges have generally been offering refunds on room and board fees, not tuition.

More than 1,500 Chicago students have signed a petition calling for a 50 percent tuition reduction for the spring quarter, which began on April 6. The private institution is one of the most costly in the United States, and students who support a lowered tuition are asking the university to go beyond the student services fee reduction it has already made, Kincheloe said. The fee, which covers services such as mental health counseling and recreational and social activities, was reduced from more than $400 -- ranging from $416 to $446 for graduate and undergraduate students -- to a flat fee of $125. Students who live more than 50 miles away from campus during the spring quarter will not be required to pay the fee, which is consistent with regular university policy. A university spokesman noted that significantly more students now live further away from the campus since it closed. 

Some 850 students that belong to a newly formed group called UChicago for Fair Tuition have said they will withhold their spring quarter tuition payment, due April 29, because they either cannot afford it or they will not pay in solidarity with the students and families that have lost income due to economic hardship, said Julia Attie, a senior and organizer for the group. Attie said she convinced her mother to withhold the tuition payment, even though she can afford to pay it.

She and other students set to graduate this spring could eventually have restrictions placed on them by the university for withholding tuition payments. Under university policy, seniors could be prevented from graduating and underclassmen prevented from registering for classes. The striking students’ intention is to push Chicago, which has a $8.2 billion endowment and raised $5 billion in a 2019 fundraising campaign, to use some of those fund to further help students, Attie said.

“If the university truly needs our tuition, this will be a big blow and they will be forced to lower tuition,” she said. “If this isn’t a big blow, then it proves what we’ve been saying -- they have a huge fundraising arm, and if this doesn’t affect them, they can afford to reduce tuition.”

In response to the strike, university administrators have reassured students that they will continue to get credit toward their degrees and will be charged full tuition for the quarter as a result, according to a press release from UChicago for Fair Tuition. Students were reminded that they can take a voluntary leave of absence for the quarter and receive a full tuition refund if the leave was arranged by the first Friday of the quarter, which was April 10, according to current university policy.

“We also recognize that spring quarter will be different than anyone anticipated, but these changes are necessary to safeguard members of our community,” a statement from the university said. “On tuition, we take into account that the cost is a reflection of progress toward a degree. UChicago instructors are adapting courses to a remote learning environment to ensure that students continue to receive a rigorous, transformative education.”

Students who are months away from receiving their degrees don’t see a leave of absence as a practical option. Jamie Warren, a second-year graduate student at Chicago who signed the petition, said their best way forward is to push through the next three months, incur the debt and get the degree.

“My tuition is paid, but because my partner lost his income and his insurance, our savings will be drained over the next few months with food, rent, bills and other necessities,” Warren said. “I’ll already be in debt for the next couple decades, so my partner and I both agree that I might as well go broke over this.”

Chicago meets the full financial need of all undergraduate students who are admitted so they do not require loans, and first-year students receive an average financial aid award from the university of more than $50,000, Gerald McSwiggan, assistant director for public affairs, said in a written statement. Kincheloe said she received a $31,000 scholarship, which helped her decide to attend the university.

“It looked like they really take care of people,” she said.

“Compared with other major four-year universities in Illinois and nationwide, UChicago graduates have among the lowest levels of student debt and exceptional career outcomes, including placement with substantive job opportunities and top graduate programs,” the university's statement said.

Kincheloe said she's now less sure of her decision to enroll at Chicago. She said her learning experiences were what she hoped for, but navigating her education as a first-generation student has been “difficult” and she has not felt supported by the institution, especially now that she's under more financial stress after ending the occasional food delivery and bartending gigs she did to pay her bills.

“Obviously, there are things that are outside of their control and they have been trying to do things to alleviate what’s going on for people, but it seems like they are just waiting for others to do it,” Kincheloe said. “Elite schools bring in these students and don’t provide support. People in these communities have to rely on each other.”

A similar movement for tuition refunds was started last month by students in the University of California system. Rosie Oganesian, a freshman at the University of California, Irvine, started a petition that has been signed by more than 7,600 people asking the UC system to partially refund tuition for the spring quarter, which began two weeks ago, she said. Oganesian said after UC Irvine asked students to leave campus and said classes would be conducted online, she and her peers began to question why they were continuing to pay the cost of an in-person education.

Students studying in physical and life sciences programs will not be able to conduct experiments in research labs and learn how to use equipment for future courses, said Oganesian, who is a biology major and was supposed to begin a research lab during the spring quarter. She and other students, including those at Chicago, have acknowledged the work of instructors to replicate classes online, but Oganesian said she won’t have the same grasp of lab procedures that she’s now learning for the first time.

“We understand you still have to pay the professors, but that shouldn’t come out of our pockets,” Oganesian said. “If I wanted to go to an online school, I could go to an online school. I paid to go to class and sit in a lecture.”

Tuition, plus the student services fee, is a “mandatory charge” that helps cover faculty members’ salaries, said a March 30 email to students from UC Irvine officials. The UC system has not changed its policies for refunds, and students will continue to earn full credit for courses, said the email signed by Willie Banks Jr., vice chancellor for student affairs; Michael Dennin, dean of the division of undergraduate education; and Gillian Hayes, dean of the graduate division.

“The university continues to function even as many staff and faculty are working and teaching remotely,” the email said. “While certain aspects of campus operations are curtailed during this transition, many of the costs associated with campus-based fees continue, and new costs have been incurred during this time. The debt owed for student buildings and facilities and our need to maintain campus infrastructure continue despite the current crisis.”

While in-person instruction is the "preferred method" for most UC students, the pandemic requires adjustment to social distancing and classes delivered remotely for their safety, Sarah McBride, a spokesperson for the UC Office of the President, said in an email. The university is incurring some new costs for the shift to online, including video software licensing, technology security and laptops for remote workers, she said.

Warren said an education dependent on internet connection, which sometimes makes it hard to see and hear the instructor, is not what University of Chicago students signed up for.

“Sitting in my own home, and not in a gorgeous classroom paid for by rich donors and students’ tuition -- that’s not what I was promised,” Warren said.

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