Parents demanding a tuition discount, think about who gets hurt if that happens
Among parents sending their kids to college this fall — and I’m one of them — I’m seeing a pretty common complaint on the parent Facebook groups and chats and the like. Why, if my kid is going to be taking most of their classes online, am I still having to pay regular price for tuition?
The arguments are all pretty similar. Online teaching is inferior to in-person! My child is not getting the experience I’m paying for! This is a huge rip-off! Sign the petition!
Listen, I get it. Tuition is expensive, and it seems to keep going up everywhere every year. And I’m not here to argue that tuition isn’t too high in general — that’s a different conversation for a different time.
But right now? This is not the time to be asking for a tuition discount. I say this both as a parent of a college student, and as a faculty member who will be teaching your kids this fall. The short-term savings you may get won’t be worth the long-term harm it would almost certainly cause.
Now, if you’ve lost income because of your work, if your home circumstances have changed, if the awfulness of the pandemic has affected your life and your ability to pay for college expenses, then absolutely, you should talk to the financial aid office at your university to ask for help. Many universities have enhanced financial aid and created student emergency funds, some of which was funded by money they received from the CARES Act. No university wants a student to be unable to afford to attend in the fall because of the devastating economic effects of the pandemic.
But if you’ve got the means and the ability to pay regular tuition, and you just want a discount because this isn’t what you wanted to pay for? Let’s talk about that.
First of all — think about what tuition funds. Room and board are a separate expense, student fees cover entertainment and other on-campus events, and athletics usually comes out of different funds.*
What your tuition pays for is for people and spaces — the things your kid needs to earn a college degree. This includes the instructors, deans, administrators, facilities personnel, instructional staff, libraries, classrooms, labs, work spaces, and everything else a university provides to make the academic experience the best it can be. None of those things have gotten cheaper during the pandemic.
In fact, most have gotten more expensive. Faculty who teach classes are doing extra work in summer to prepare for hybrid teaching, to serve both in-person and fully online students. Classrooms have had to be updated with new video and audio tech for these purposes. Health and safety protocols mean more staff are needed to do more cleaning, as well as more supplies and tools to keep on-campus spaces as safe as possible.
The quality of your kid’s education won’t take a hit. We’re not in the situation we were in spring, where instructors had to flip courses to fully online versions of themselves in short order. We’ve been working all summer, through multiple trainings and meetings with online education experts, to get ready for fall. I’m fortunate to be at a university that has allowed instructors the choice to teach online only or in-person/hybrid, meaning we’re all able to design courses the best way we can that makes sense for both us and our students. Right now, a little more than half of the classes at TCU will be offered online this fall, while all of them will be ready to go online as needed if circumstances require it. We’ll be ready.
I know I am — my three courses are just about filled to capacity, with 58 of 60 students enrolled in those classes choosing to attend in-person. We’re getting classroom space ready to fit them — something that wasn’t possible when all classes were in-person, and max classroom space was 17 in my building. Now, it looks like I’ll be able to teach 25 students, socially distanced, all together elsewhere on campus as teaching spaces have opened up. And students who are attending remotely will be Zoomed into those classrooms for live lecture and discussion. My course objectives are the same as they’ve always been, but now we have tools to enhance them even further, with things like online breakout small discussion rooms, and the possibility of bringing in even more top guest speakers from my field.
Discounted tuition means you would be paying less for what has required more labor from everybody at the university to maximize your kids’ experiences in school. And that will pile on to the already very serious concerns about university revenues. My employer, TCU, expects more than $55 million in lost revenue for 2020 already, largely due to fall football and on-campus room and board losses. Administrators have tried to make up for this with 20 percent cuts to the operating budget — every department, even athletics, is cutting out travel, equipment upgrades, and the like in the short term to try to offset the losses. Faculty aren’t getting raises for the first time in more than a decade, and every employee got hit with a controversial and unpopular 30 percent cut to their retirement. The library had to halt purchasing new books and cancel many of its subscriptions to resources both faculty and students use for their work. Some high-level administrators and coaches took voluntary pay cuts as well.
We’re already hurting. With no raise (despite fully earning it last year) and the retirement cut, I’m already getting paid 6 to 7 percent less this year to do the same job, but with even more hours devoted to enhancing the student experience. So, what would discounted tuition mean? Let’s be real here — lost tuition revenues would start to mean cuts.
Faculty and staff, who are working even harder at their jobs to educate, mentor, and take care of your kids now, would be facing furloughs and layoffs. The first wave would likely be staff as well as untenured instructors and adjuncts — often some of your kids’ favorite teachers. That would also likely result in larger class sizes for heavier course loads for the instructors who remain.
Support services like advising and counseling would be less accessible for students. Facilities would take a hit. The labs and computers and other equipment — I think of the digital cameras, video equipment and production tools we use in student media and journalism courses — all take a step back as upgrades are delayed.
The good news would be, you’d save some money, and your kid’s discounted education wouldn’t result in an asterisk being put on their diploma when they graduate. You should know that, as higher education consumers, you wield immense power, and calls from angry parents put a ton of pressure on administrators and boards to listen to you. For good or ill, you’ll probably get what you want.
The bad news is, the college experience you send your kids to would become unavoidably worse. And when the pandemic clears up, and things return to normal, the university they come back to will be fundamentally altered, as the people who make it what it is have been burned out by having to make up for the losses of our colleagues. At least, for those who haven’t left for good. As one of my friends at City University of New York put it, in the context of potential waves of students taking gap years:
So realize that when you say you want a tuition discount for this year because of how much it is online, what you’re really saying is, I’m good with the university cutting the people who make the university experience what I hoped it would be in the first place. That may not be your intent, but it will absolutely be the result.
* TCU is one of the handful of universities that at least breaks even on athletics, in terms of costs and income. You can search revenues and expense for athletics at universities here. TCU reported $118.5 million in both revenues and expenses last year. https://ope.ed.gov/athletics/#/institution/details