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Education

Students Push For Reduced Tuition As Schools Move Online During The Pandemic

Michael Luecke works on a computer in an office.
Keren Carrión
/
KERA News
Michael Luecke works from his office at the Student Organization Center at UNT.

Colleges and universities across Texas moved to online and hybrid courses for safety reasons when COVID-19 hit. Now, many students wonder why they're still paying the same in-person tuition prices.

Michael Luecke was looking forward to his senior year at the University of North Texas. He couldn't wait to be back in the classroom and to spend time with his friends at various philanthropic events. Now, what he had anticipated is happening virtually because of COVID-19.

"This semester, I feel like I really haven't learned much. I know that's bad to say, but I feel like I haven't learned much from what I have in previous semesters," Luecke said. "And I feel like this semester, I'm going week by week, and trying to complete my assignments, and trying not to drown."

Many Texas universities are offering a mix of in-person and online courses this fall. Some amenities, like libraries, are also accessible online. But, other resources like rec centers and computer labs mostly remain closed or have limited access.

For many students, the one thing that hasn't changed about the college experience is tuition. Few schools in the U.S. offered reduced tuition during the fall semester. In Dallas, Paul Quinn College reduced their tuition by 28%.

Now, some students who didn't receive a tuition reduction want a discount.

Baylor was the first university in Texas to face a class-action lawsuit from students seeking reimbursement for tuition and fees from last spring. At least five other similar lawsuits are filed across the state, including one against Southern Methodist University.

Each of these suits is trying to make the case that universities have not delivered the experience students signed up for.

Michael Luecke looks away as he stands outside of a campus building.
Keren Carrión
Michael Luecke, student body president of the University of North Texas, poses for a portrait outside of the Hurley Administration Building on campus, on October 15, 2020.

UNT's Luecke said he feels the same way.

"If we're not going to be using certain facilities, then honestly, I don't understand why we are paying for them," Luecke said. "I get that we still have to pay for the upkeep of those buildings, but at least reduce the fee. Don't make us pay for something if we're not even using it."

UNT hasn't adjusted its tuition for the fall. The school offered reimbursements in the spring after amenities became unavailable due to COVID-19.

Others, like SMU’s Netanya Kaufman, argued school’s should reconsider tuition prices since most of campus life is non-existent now.

"I miss being able to do social activities through school. Obviously, there’s no parties we can have under the school's name," Kaufman said. "Why are we still paying full tuition? Where is our money even going this year?"

Some students argue that reduced tuition is even more critical as the economy struggles to recover.

Luecke was working as a campus life ambassador before the pandemic hit. Before long, the campus was a ghost town, and his job disappeared. Then, he lost financial support from his mom after her hours were cut as a substitute teacher.

"They weren't able to help me out as much as they usually do," Luecke said. "I was still able to afford different things, but it was harder because while we were at home, I had to spend more on groceries, or different things and that sort."

After a month, Luecke was elected president of the Student Government Association, which is a paid position.

But just like students, universities said they are struggling financially, too.

"The impacts of the pandemic are going to be felt for a significant period of time. This is not something that will just be felt for one academic year," said Dominique Baker, a professor of education policy at SMU. "We have to be thinking from a long standpoint about everyone, that includes students, but also the housekeeping staff, the dining hall staff, as we better understand the financial repercussions of the pandemic."

Simmons Education Policy And Leadership Faculty Dominique Baker Portrait
Dominique Baker
Dominique Baker poses for a portrait at Southern Methodist University.

Baker said layoffs are coming for many schools, and so the decision for tuition to remain the same is essential for many.

"The tricky part about this is that it's not so much thinking about how different are prices, online or in-person, it's how do we get those programs off the ground," Baker said.

Universities have struggled to figure out how to pay to format online classrooms, update technology, provide extra cleaning crews, and other expenses brought on by the coronavirus.

Baker added that keeping tuition the same is essential for many schools because the future of education after the virus is uncertain.

"Higher education is a huge spectrum," she said. "There are all sorts of types of institutions, so I think we're going to see different effects and impacts of the pandemic based on what sector of education we are talking about."

One thing is clear though, both students and schools are working to put a price on the in-person college experience.

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KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, in the spirit of Giving Tuesday, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.