Education

Do You Think College Students Should Get Partial Tuition Refunds?

Written by Richard Fossey

According to Investopedia, “Bait and switch is a morally suspect sales tactic that lures customers in with specific claims about quality or low prices . . .” However, once customers are lured in, “the advertised deal does not exist, or is of far inferior quality or specifications, where the buyer is then presented with an upsell.”

When the universities shut down last month in response to the coronavirus pandemic, they sent their students home and partially refunded dorm fees they had collected from students living on campus. They also shifted all face-to-face teaching to online instruction while continuing to charge full tuition.

In essence, the universities engaged in bait and switch. They promised a classroom learning experience, but they substituted an inferior product–cobbled together online classes.

But many students weren’t happy with the change. In their view, online teaching is an inferior product.

Inside Higher Ed told the story of Arica Kincheloe, who took out $50,000 in student loans to enroll in a one-year accelerated program in social service administration at the University of Chicago.

Like most higher education institutions, the University of Chicago canceled on-campus classes and directed faculty to shift to a distance-learning format.

But Kincheloe believes she has been shortchanged. “It’s a throwaway–a shortened quarter,” she said. “I do not feel like I am getting the same education that I would have otherwise.”

Other University of Chicago students agree with Kincheloe. Fifteen hundred students signed a petition calling for a 50 percent reduction in tuition, and 850 students formed a group that is threatening to withhold their tuition payments.

UChicago administrators don’t see a problem with the change. Administrators say students will get full credit toward their degrees even though the instruction has been modified. Therefore, the university will continue charging students full tuition.

The University of Chicago probably considers this controversy a temporary annoyance. All this may blow over if the university returns to traditional on-campus teaching this fall.

But I doubt it.

Private colleges have justified extortionary tuition by arguing that a student’s on-campus experience–both curricular and extracurricular–is superior. Those ivy-covered buildings, those cerebral tweed-coated professors, networking opportunities to mingle with rich people–the elite universities claim the whole package justifies charging tuition as high as $60,000 a year.

But if students are sitting at home taking classes that are little more than correspondence courses, then they might as well go to a less expensive state university.

Likewise, HBCUs are going to have difficulty justifying their existence if their instruction moves to a distance-learning format. As Pearl K. Dowe argued in a recent essay, the survivability of HBCUs “has always been rooted in their commitment to serve, educate and advance Black students in a [physical]space that is edifying, nurturing and empowering.” So why would Black students enroll at an HBCU if they’re taking their classes online?

I’m not saying the universities intentionally engaged in bait and switch. The pandemic forced them to suspend traditional classroom teaching. But they know that their hastily put-together online classes are a cheap substitute for face-to-face interaction with professors. In fact, many universities have gone to pass/fail grading for online instruction–an implicit admission that this mode of teaching is inferior.

I agree with the University of Chicago students. The online instruction they are getting is not what they bargained for and is a shoddy substitute. The University of Chicago should slash tuition for the spring semester by 50 percent.




About the author

Richard Fossey

Richard Fossey is a professor at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, Louisiana. He received his law degree from the University of Texas and his doctorate from Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is editor of Catholic Southwest, A Journal of History and Culture.

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