September 29, 2020
7 Ways Colleges Can Address Student Outrage Over COVID-19 Disruptions
Students are Suffering; Schools Can and Should be Doing a Lot More for Them

The leader of a coalition of nonprofit organizations behind the Tuition Payers Bill of Rights today released a list of ways in which some colleges and universities are responding to students’ and families’ growing resentment and financial anxiety as more schools announce a return to all-online classes this fall.  

“Students are justifiably angry and they are suffering financially, logistically, mentally and emotionally from these major, last-minute changes to their college plans,” said James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust. “Some schools are finding creative and incremental ways to do the right thing by their students, so clearly, it is possible to do so.”

Toscano noted that the schools turning a deaf ear to their students’ concerns are facing immediate and long-term repercussions, including a predicted 5-20% reduced enrollment and 200 class action lawsuits. “The following examples can lead to better planning and communication -- and more mutually satisfying outcomes -- based on foresight rather than hindsight,” he said.


1. No “Bait-and-Switch” on Fall Semester Plans

While uncertainty over the containment of COVID-19 kept many institutions from revealing their campus reopening plans until weeks or days prior to the start of fall classes, the California State University System and Dallas County Community College announced their decisions to hold classes fully online in May. This enabled students to fully consider their options and prevented many from getting locked into leases or incurring moving expenses when their classes were changed to all-online.

2. Discounted Tuition

Among the only 3% of institutions that have announced tuition reductions after switching to an online semester (many have actually increased tuition) are Richland Community College, which is offering students a 15% tuition discount and providing refunds for students who already paid; and HBCU Hampton University, which is offering a 15% tuition discount.

3. Differential Tuition Rates for Online Classes

While 93% of college students believe their tuition should be lowered if colleges switch to online learning this fall, 90% of institutions that plan to hold both online and in-person classes this fall do not differentiate tuition by how the course is taught. Among those that do are Purdue University, which gave their students the option of a fully online fall semester with a lower tuition rate, and the Southern New Hampshire University, which lowered tuition by 69% to match their online rates after making the decision to hold classes remotely during the fall semester. SNHU had previously announced full tuition scholarships for all incoming freshman.

4. Reduced Student Fees for Unavailable Services

Acknowledging that the transition to online learning has left students without access to on-campus programs, services and facilities, Texas Tech has refunded student athletic access fees and the University of Connecticut has cut mandatory student fees by 41% for students who choose a fully online semester.

5. Prorated Refunds Plus Credit for Room and Board

Many schools offered a prorated refund for room and board, and parking in the spring, but the University of Alabama allowed students to apply that amount and an extra 10% as an account credit for the fall.

6. Bonus Semesters

Schools that are offering deferred financial incentives to new and returning students include Pacific Lutheran University, which is offering a free fifth year of tuition; and Transylvania University, which is offering a free on-campus summer class to those whose classes during the school year are all online.

7. Extended Withdrawal Deadlines for Refunds

North Carolina State announced a week extension of the withdrawal deadline to give students and families more time to decide whether to stay the course or receive a 90% tuition refund. During that time, the university announced that all classes would be online. UNC Chapel Hill announced a similar extension.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated America’s already growing crisis of confidence in the value of higher education,” said Toscano. “Institutions can and should offer some level of restitution to tuition payers for what students believe is an inferior educational experience. Moreover, they need to adopt policies of transparency and accountability that will make students and families feel their considerable investment into a college degree is wise and safe.”