When Mariah Stephenson received the bill for her fall semester at Towson University in Maryland, she did a double take. Even though fall sports have been suspended, she saw a $499 athletics fee on her statement.
Stephenson is already juggling interest payments on her student loans, rent for an off-campus apartment and a car payment. She transferred from a local community college in January because she wanted the on-campus experience, complete with attending football games, and the chance to make new friends in campus clubs. But now, as she finds herself paying for services she can’t access, she’s wondering why she transferred at all.
Stephenson, 22 years old, is one of many students in a tug of war with colleges over tuition and fees, one that lays bare questions that have long existed but become especially resonant as students head back to school in a pandemic: What exactly are students paying for, why is it so expensive, and is the price tag worth it?
WSJ Noted spoke to more than two-dozen college students at both public and private universities, as well as about a dozen college officials for this article. These students overwhelmingly say they shouldn’t have to pay full tuition if instruction is online. Many institutions maintain that, regardless of the mode of delivery, the ultimate value lies in the education they provide. And, in terms of fees, colleges also say they are necessary to maintain services that draw students to their institutions in the first place.
According to a 2019 Federal Reserve report, 55% of people under the age of 30 who went to college took on some debt for their education. Many students think their education should be discounted if they’re not getting the on-campus college experience they signed up for. In a survey of more than 13,000 students by the study guide platform OneClass, 93% of students said tuition should be lowered if classes go completely online this fall.
“I’ll be the first to say that the system that we have in the U.S. for paying for college is broken.”— Denisa Gándara
Some college students are using social media and petitions to advocate for reduced costs. In July and August, about 450 Change.org petitions, many of which now have thousands of signatures, were started to advocate for lower tuition and fees at colleges and universities. The petition creators often said they were getting an inferior learning experience and that they were unable to use services they couldn’t access.
Most colleges have declined to reduce tuition, says Kevin McClure, associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
“I’ll be the first to say that the system that we have in the U.S. for paying for college is broken,” says Denisa Gándara, an assistant professor of education policy and leadership at Southern Methodist University in Texas. “But the question of whether colleges and universities should reduce their tuition and fees is a bit more complicated because you can’t talk about prices without talking about costs.”