New England is famous for its private non-profit colleges with several of the top 100 colleges located here. But in face of the health and economic crisis our nation is experiencing, many of these well-heeled institutions have turned a deaf ear to the concerns of students and their families.
Reliant on revenue from room and board, colleges have urged their students to return to campus this fall, stressing the importance of their residential education model. But as students moved in to their pandemic modified dorms in August, most colleges reverted to strictly remote and online education, shutting down libraries and facilities, greatly hampering their much advertised campus experience.
Adding insult to injury, Boston College increased its tuition by 3.69%, Boston University by 3.9%, Dartmouth College by 3.9%, Harvard by 4%, Tufts by 3.8%, Wellesley College by 4.2%, and the list goes on.
Some colleges have even tried to make their students waive their rights to room and board refunds if COVID-19 forces campus closures again. Or, in a new cost-adding twist, Merrimack College in North Andover is requiring students to help defray the cost of COVID-19 testing and mitigation by charging a fee of $950 for the year. Even if the campus is closed, students will not receive a refund for this fee.
The reality is that millions of students are now forced to accept what most believe is lower quality online instruction and no access to facilities, services and activities. One recent study showed that 80% of students surveyed described the “Zoom University” experience as less effective than on-campus classes. Another study found that 93% of students surveyed believe college tuition should be reduced if all classes are held online.
This justifiable dissatisfaction, coupled with the crushing burden of student debt, particularly among low-income and first-generation college students, has increased their anxiety about the safety and wisdom of their higher education investment. Yet they are still charged the full amount for this inferior educational experience – just as they were for their partial Spring semester.
Students aren’t taking this lying down. Already, over 200 class action lawsuits have been filed against colleges for services not rendered since the COVID-19 disruptions. There is a projected 5-20% drop in enrollment this fall. Harvard University, which increased its tuition and fees recently, revealed that 20% of its incoming freshman have chosen to defer for the year.
Today, it’s unclear whether colleges have any legal duty to deliver what they advertised. In every other area of commerce, consumers have basic rights to protect them from inferior products or services, undisclosed costs and undelivered benefits. Colleges can help to restore students’ confidence – and avert long-lasting consequences – by adopting a Tuition Payer Bill of Rights to ensure college students and their families have the same basic protections.
Under the Tuition Payer Bill of Rights, colleges and universities would refund students the cost of services they did not receive. Students could opt out of non-essential fees and have access to low cost on-line textbooks. Colleges would commit to full financial transparency.
A handful of institutions are already acting to address the concerns and financial challenges facing students and their families. MIT, Smith College, and Bowdoin have frozen their tuition in response to the pandemic-induced economic crisis. Williams College is actively discounting tuition, commonsensically recognizing that the pandemic-associated challenges will take away from the college experience. The University of Connecticut is cutting mandatory student fees by 41% for students who choose a fully online semester. Southern New Hampshire University is offering freshman on-campus full tuition scholarships for the first year and slashing the price for everyone else from $31,000 to $10,000.
Academia’s continuing failure to lead in this crisis, and the lack of recourse when services are not provided, will intensify growing questions over the value of a degree. The many missteps by schools have students and families understandably re-evaluating their investment in higher education – and public institutions are not immune.
While the government must ensure that our public institutions are properly funded to survive this crisis and best serve their students, it is time for all colleges and universities to reshuffle their priorities and build consumers’ confidence that their investment is safe. They can do so by adopting the Tuition Payers Bill of Rights.
Bahar Akman Imboden, PhD, is managing director of Hildreth Institute. James Toscano, DLP, is president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust.