College Costs and COVID-19

By Shriya Chitale

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the way we interact with each other — especially in the academic sphere.

Across the country, college closures in March prompted fear, doubt, and concerns about the future. Colleges struggled to provide students with adequate time to return back home and often failed to provide adequate reimbursement for lost housing, a diminished academic experience, and related costs. Months later, the situation is still uncertain and fearful. As a result, more than ever, making the decision to return to college this fall is a financial choice.

Universities are operating under the same uncertain circumstances as in March, but other than academics, they have another factor to consider: profits.

Universities have consistently been criticized for how they’ve utilized student tuition and decisions to raise tuition, especially since they have struggled to make college affordable. According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, “tuition for a four-year public institution, is 213% higher than it was 30 years ago.” In conjunction with multiple other variables, such as increases in expenses, this has led to an increase in student debt. According to the Department of Education, from 1992 to 2012, “the average amount owed by a typical student loan borrower who graduated with a bachelor’s degree more than doubled to a total of nearly $27,000.” Thus, recent graduates have put off typical milestones, such as buying a house or getting married, due to the heavy burden of student loans — drastically postponing economic mobility in doing so.

Given the circumstances, transparency regarding tuition and the transition to campus is particularly important. The decision to cut academic programs, cut on-campus resources and furlough employees are all drastic measures that students should be aware of. After all, these are the very aspects of the college experience that high tuition rates are meant to cover. 

In spite of the circumstances, several universities have instead raised tuition to combat budget shortfalls from going online in the 2019-2020 academic year. The University of Michigan, for example, has increased tuition by 1.9% even though classes will be primarily online. For students, paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend college fully online, or on-campus in potentially dangerous conditions is a difficult one. 

However, in their efforts to address economic shortfalls, several colleges have failed to invest in their economic engines.  For higher education institutions, “economic engines” are the programs and opportunities offered that provide the largest amounts of revenue and support financial infrastructures. Universities must discover their most successful programs on campus, and concentrate their efforts on delivering that service despite the circumstances. Though it may not be ideal, universities must analyze critical trends to see what programs generate the least revenue or may be the least popular amongst students: opting to cut undesired programs/programs that are not as profitable can help universities avoid increases in tuitions and furloughs.  

If colleges are unable to incentivize students to return, especially financially, they could face even deeper financial repercussions. Across the board, students are opting to defer college admissions — at Harvard, 1 in 5 first-year students deferred.. Several students are transferring to community colleges. According to reports from the Washington Post, several lower income students are unable to attend college due to concerns with WiFi. Data from the U.S. Census bureau reports that students from families earning a combined income of $75,000 or less a year were approximately twice as likely to state that they’ve cancelled plans to attend college in 2020. Such statistics are worrisome — obtaining a college degree is a predictor of success, and an opportunity for economic mobility.  In the future, it’s likely that it will be more difficult for lower-income students to obtain scholarships; commercial companies that offer scholarships are cutting their budgets. It’s possible that those choosing to drop out of college or push off attendance will not return: only 13% of college dropouts end up completing their degree. In 2020, two-thirds of all jobs already require college degrees. Thus, it’s possible that unemployment rates will continue to increase and that businesses will struggle to retain human capital. It’s imperative that universities take decisive action now. 

However, universities do not have to provide information regarding how they are using tuition before students made the decision to attend college. Thus, the burden largely lies with the students. The solution may not simply lie just with economics, but rather a humanistic approach. In a time of uncertainty about the present and future, college students deserve transparency. Transparency can assuage student concerns about mishandling of tuition, and cultivate an academic environment that may be online, but still supportive of student needs. Sending out a detailed financial report can show students how their money is being spent. Most of all, colleges must commit to providing students with a quality education and experience, not sacrifice it completely in the name of monetary gain. □


Work Cited

  1. Photo; Sebastian Scheiner / AP, source
  2. “How Colleges Spend Money.” American Council of Trustees and Alumni, www.goacta.org/initiatives/how-colleges-spend-money/
  3. “College Affordability and Completion: Ensuring a Pathway to Opportunity.” College Affordability and Completion: Ensuring a Pathway to Opportunity | U.S. Department of Education, www.ed.gov/college. 
  4. Bursztynsky, Jessica. “More People Put off Home Buying, Due to Student Debt: Survey.” CNBC, CNBC, 1 Mar. 2019, www.cnbc.com/2019/03/01/suvery-finds-more-people-put-off-home-buying-due-to-student-debt.html. 
  5. Jesse, David. “U-M Passes 1.9% Tuition Hike, Plans to Cover Cost of Increase for Most in-State Students.” Detroit Free Press, Detroit Free Press, 30 June 2020, www.freep.com/story/news/education/2020/06/29/u-m-passes-1-9-tuition-increase/3282566001/. 
  6. Michelle.Williams@MassLive.com, Michelle Williams |. “More than 20% of Harvard’s First-Year Students Defer Enrollment.” Masslive, 8 Aug. 2020, www.masslive.com/news/2020/08/more-than-20-of-harvards-first-year-students-defer-enrollment.html. 
  7. Heather Long, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. “The Latest Crisis: Low-Income Students Are Dropping out of College This Fall in Alarming Numbers.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 Sept. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/09/16/college-enrollment-down/. 
  8. Cooper, Preston. “How Many College Dropouts Go Back To School?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 4 Nov. 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/prestoncooper2/2019/11/05/how-many-college-dropouts-go-back-to-school/
  9. Blumenstyk, Goldie. “By 2020, They Said, 2 Out of 3 Jobs Would Need More Than a High-School Diploma. Were They Right?” CHE, 2020, www.chronicle.com/newsletter/the-edge/2020-01-22.