Colleges are hiking the price of tuition and living fees despite a decrease in classroom learning and student services.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), New York University, the University of Southern California (USC), and Indiana University are among several universities raising tuition and other fees in the upcoming academic year. These institutions will raise the cost of tuition and living expenses by an average of $1,511 while minimizing services, amenities, and in-person classroom learning.
Tuition hikes come as universities struggle to adapt to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced schools to send students home from campus and adopt alternative teaching methods. Colleges fear tuition revenue will decrease as they transition to online programming, but students are more concerned that they are paying exorbitant rates with little return.
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"As students, we still do not know what classes will be in-person or online," said UIUC College Republicans president Matthew Krauter. "We do not know what activities the university will offer or what events our student organizations may hold. The decision to raise the cost of tuition and campus life while simultaneously scaling back activities and in-person education is tone-deaf."
Colleges justify the tuition and fee increase by citing the fixed operation costs and decisions made before the pandemic. UIUC will raise in-state student tuition by 4.5 percent to a minimum of $32,814 and out-of-state tuition will rise by 3.5 percent to $50,604 in the 2020-2021 academic year.
University of Illinois spokesman Jan Dennis told the Washington Free Beacon that the public university—which received $1.9 billion in taxpayer funds in 2019— would not roll back costs, though it is attempting to expand scholarship programs.
"The tuition increase was approved in January, before the pandemic," Dennis said. "[The University of Illinois] system created a new fund that will provide at least $36 million to help students facing increased financial need due to COVID."
According to a UIUC press briefing, the university plans to uphold the six-feet social distancing guideline in classrooms, and students will be required to wear masks on campus. But the school is also scaling back the traditional services it provides to students. Residence halls will have limited occupancy, and dining centers will transition to take-out centers. USC announced similar plans in early June, but reversed course on July 1 when it announced a transition to online instruction, citing Los Angeles County health guidelines. A USC spokesman directed the Washington Free Beacon to a university tweet about the Trump administration's decision to force foreign students to return home if classes do not reconvene in the fall. He refused to answer questions about tuition hikes.
Students are upset with the disconnect—traditional universities have moved online, but still cost far more than existing e-learning programs. At Indiana University, students were told they would be learning almost exclusively online despite the decision by the board of trustees to increase tuition.
"I found out five of my six classes were moved online for the fall, on top of that, my tuition is increasing by more than 5 percent [since 2019]," an IU rising sophomore told the Free Beacon. "This isn't fair and it's frustrating for students, like me, who feel web-based learning isn't sufficient."
Indiana University did not return a request for comment.
Social factors have long justified the high price tag of a college education. Beth Akers, a higher education expert at the Manhattan Institute, said these changes will force colleges to rethink their purpose.
"The traditional business model of higher [education] has long been a message that by having this immersive, on-campus experience, we're creating some sort of higher education ‘magic' that justifies this exorbitant price tag," Akers said. "COVID has taken away the ability for colleges to offer those things that supposedly make the higher education experience so special, so valuable, and worth these very big price tags."
NYU has not released an official statement confirming whether classes will reconvene in-person in the fall, although on July 1 the school announced it will still accept deposits for undergraduate housing. The university tells prospective students that they will pay $54,882 in tuition, as well as an estimated $19,244 in room and board next year—up from $53,308 and $18,684 for the 2019-2020 academic year. NYU did not return a request for comment.
"There's a lot of uncertainty about what revenue will actually look like. That's because a lot have not made a decision about whether or not to have online or in-person classes," Akers said. "COVID is adding costs in some instances when they're choosing to keep campuses open and others when those campuses are closing." The college business model likely cannot withstand a price reduction in tuition as the coronavirus pandemic affects enrollment. Akers predicts there will be a drop-off in enrollment, particularly among first-year students, which will dramatically impact revenue for these colleges.
Tuition has been rising for decades, based in part on the higher earnings and job prospects that graduates enjoy. Higher education's primacy in the job market, however, is facing challenges not just from the pandemic, but also from the White House. In June, President Trump issued an executive order to replace college degree-based hiring with skills-based hiring within the federal government. Such an approach could jeopardize a major recruiting tool for America's colleges.
Inez Stepman, a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women's Forum, told the Free Beacon the crash of traditional universities may be exactly what the country needs.
"The university sector, which has long been growing on the tax investment of mechanics, janitors, and the majority of Americans without a four-year degree, may see contractions for the first time in decades," Stepman said. "Since universities have mostly abandoned their mission to shape thoughtful, informed citizens and have degenerated into activism training camps for the far left, this overdue contraction could have positive effects for the country."