The Case for Tuition Refunds
This won’t be a regular semester and colleges shouldn’t charge a regular price.
Within the past three months, students have filed over 100 lawsuits demanding tuition refunds due to the compromised quality of students’ education during the coronavirus pandemic. These lawsuits — against both public and private institutions, including ours,
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Within the past three months, students have filed over 100 lawsuits demanding tuition refunds due to the compromised quality of students’ education during the coronavirus pandemic. These lawsuits — against both public and private institutions, including ours, Brown University — argue that because the quality of online education is significantly lower than in-person classes, universities cannot ethically demand the same tuition payments. At the heart of these lawsuits rests an incisive critique of administrative hypocrisy, namely, the doublespeak that allows administrators to claim, on the one hand, that on-campus learning is of vital importance to our college experience, and, on the other, that it adds no value to a student’s degree.
Most elite private institutions like Brown have stubbornly refused to issue tuition refunds during the coronavirus crisis, despite their clear ability to do so, given their bloated endowments, high administrative salaries, successful fund-raising efforts, and steady tuition increases. Instead, prominent administrators have largely focused on the financial health of wealthy colleges. In a New York Times op-ed in April, Christina Paxson, our university’s president, focused on the economic troubles that loom if college campuses do not reopen in the fall. In May, Paxson outlined detailed plans for the recovery of Brown’s projected economic deficit but released only vague intentions about how Brown will prepare to safeguard community health upon reopening.
Last Tuesday, she announced Brown’s plans for a hybrid semester of both in-person and online coursework but made no mention of tuition cuts. With the notable exception of Princeton University — which recently announced a 10-percent tuition cut for the coming year — as other colleges announce their fall plans, the collective disregard for tuition imbalances has been deafening.
What does tuition pay for, if not the venerated collegiate experience?
A full priced fall semester presents different struggles for different students, including those who are international, low income, recently unemployed or undercompensated due to the economic shutdowns, or immunocompromised. As we confront a global pandemic, issuing tuition refunds is a crucial first step toward ensuring that the economic well-being of students is neither dismissed nor exploited.
As the class-action lawsuits are quick to point out, the importance of on-campus education is consistently celebrated by university administrators and underscored in admission materials. According to Paxson’s op-ed, students who live on campus benefit from the “research opportunities in university laboratories and libraries” and the “fierce intellectual debates that just aren’t the same on Zoom.” As emphasized in our university’s admission materials, Brown undergraduates are required to live on campus through their junior year in order to benefit from Brown’s “exceptional learning environment.” In an op-ed published in The Washington Post, Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University, emphasizes that failing to return to campus would be a “gross disservice” to students and a “default of our responsibility.”
In the midst of Covid-19, however, administrators have moved quickly to contradict these statements with a firm stance against refunds or tuition discounts. In an interview with CNBC, Paxson countered her own op-ed’s argument about the necessity of on-campus learning, emphasizing that the “value of degrees aren’t diminished in any way” with remote digital learning. This contradictory logic, employed in each instance to ensure the financial security of the university, underscores the corporate philosophy that has swept academe.
As Leigh Claire La Berge has asserted in these pages, “Higher-ed institutions have for some time been substituting a corporate vocabulary for a scholastic one: their students have become ‘consumers,’ their faculty and alumni are ‘stakeholders,’ they seek to enhance their ‘brand’ and bolster their students’ ‘investments.” (According to a 2018 report produced by the Council of Independent Colleges, 80 percent of university presidents said fund raising was among their major time commitments.)
Paxson’s rhetorical gymnastics reveal the intense anxiety of university administrators as they grapple with an existential crisis. If elite universities want to preserve the pretense on which they charge over $70,000 a year, they must recognize the compromised quality of their online semesters, by first issuing tuition refunds, then by offering tuition cuts for the coming semester. Otherwise, they implicitly acknowledge the obsolescence of their model.
To argue that our on-campus experience remains uncompromised during even a partially remote semester is ridiculous. It confirms the premonition long held by critics of private higher education — that what tuition at elite institutions actually buys is a brand name and that, given the crisis of unemployment and the crisis of student debt, this brand name is itself a hollow and obsolete promise.
As of this year, more than 45 million people collectively owe nearly $1.6 trillion in U.S. student-loan debt. The nation’s student debt crisis, which became a major topic of debate in the recent democratic primaries, continues to dictate the lives and aspirations of millions of Americans and disproportionately affects low-income students and families.
Last February, Brown’s governing board, which already charges students more than $73,000 a year, decided to approve a 3.75-percent increase in undergraduate tuition for the 2020-21 fiscal year. Defenders of such tuition hikes argue that universities like Brown act as institutional Robin Hoods, taking large tuition payments from wealthy individuals and providing financial aid to working-class students.
Yet according to estimates produced by Opportunity Insights’s “Mobility Report Cards,” only about 1.5 percent of students at Brown come from poor families and become rich adults. The median family income of a student at Brown is over $200,000, and more students come from the top 1 percent of income distribution than from the bottom 60 percent. While the importance of financial aid at institutions like Brown cannot be overstated, elite universities are a far cry from being agents of redistribution.
Instead, as the Brooklyn College professor Corey Robin writes in The New Yorker, it is public universities — not private universities with soaring tuition rates — that are the drivers of upward mobility. Universities like the City University of New York offer educational opportunities to hundreds of thousands of poor and working-class students. (The “Mobility Report Cards” placed three of CUNY’s 25 colleges in the top 10 colleges that generate the most upward mobility). Tuition refunds would begin to offer elite universities a means to redress their complicity in maintaining class hierarchies by returning tuition back to their students.
As shown by Princeton’s announcement of a 10-percent tuition cut, there are still immediate and tangible ways that universities like Brown can redirect their finances. Organized faculty at Hampshire College, for example, have decided to work collaboratively to produce “a fiscally prudent budget” to prevent faculty layoffs and maintain a high quality of instruction. Agreements include senior professors taking larger cuts, and the president, Ed Wingenbach, taking a 50-percent pay cut.
In addition to collaborative budgeting, Brown could also redirect a portion of its extremely successful fund-raising campaigns, all established with the impetus of bettering student life. In 2015, Brown started #BrownTogether, the largest fund-raising campaign in its history. Of the $3 billion raised, over $495 million has been dedicated to “Campus and Community,” which supports, among other initiatives, “wellness programs and support for first-generation college students; and other campus life priorities” — a category under which the financial well-being of students surely falls.
Among the first budget decisions made in light of Covid-19, however, was a retraction of this commitment to community: hiring freezes, continued tuition hikes, adjunct layoffs, and the persistent denial of refunds. Meanwhile, construction continues on various property developments that have little to do with student, staff, or faculty well-being, including a flashy new performing-arts center funded via a $31.6 million gift.
Tuition refunds and tuition cuts offer elite private universities the chance to initiate a sustained, radical reconfiguration of university priorities, away from an increasingly corporate philosophy that exacerbates a crippling student debt crisis and toward an educational ethos that prioritizes the well-being of students. American private higher education has so far refused to reckon with the consequences of its financial inaccessibility, much less the debt these institutions owe to the residents of the cities in which they are located. Tuition refunds, as a tangible means of redistribution and an immediate, highly symbolic recommitment to students, would signal a new beginning.