N.J. colleges ready to reopen online while some students fight for tuition breaks

Some are offering discounted tuition while the coronavirus keeps students off campus.



This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

The fall college semester is only a few weeks away, and the question of whether full tuition is fair tuition during the pandemic is taking on increasing urgency.

New Jersey’s Stage 2 restart status sharply limits in-person instruction and residential living and, barring a drop in coronavirus cases and entry into Stage 3, remote instruction will be the most likely educational delivery mode this fall for many students. In New Jersey and across the nation, students and parents are filing class-action lawsuits, launching online petitions and publicizing their outrage over paying the same price for remote instruction as for in-person education.

Rider University students are among the most recent to amplify concerns that have existed since mid-March, when they returned home for online instruction. They might be staying home again, at least for a time. In an Aug. 3 email to students, Rider president Gregory G. Dell’Omo said if the state hasn’t announced plans to move to Stage 3 by the end of next week, the semester will begin with fully remote instruction. He also told them fall semester bills are on the way, with payment due by Aug. 26.

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For the 2020-2021 academic year, Rider’s tuition price is $22,560 per semester. Kristine A. Brown, a university spokesperson, said that between additional tuition grants and reduction of fees, Rider has reduced fall semester tuition and fee costs by 3.3%.

In July, The Rider News published an editorial, “We Demand Fair Tuition Prices,” that criticized the Lawrenceville college’s administration for leaving students out of tuition discussions. While acknowledging the university’s fiscal challenges even before the pandemic, the editorial asked, “Who better to have a conversation about financial troubles with than a generation that has over $1 trillion in student loan debt?”

Does tuition price match the education?

“Students are included on some task forces, such as for the campus restart, but there’s very little conversation with us about tuition. We’re told what the operating budget is at the end of a 2- to 3-hour town hall with no chance for discussion. There hasn’t been any concrete commitment to cutting back tuition for virtual instruction during the pandemic,” said Stephen Neukam, a senior journalism and political science major at Rider and executive editor of The Rider News.

Dylan Erdelyi, a senior majoring in musical theater and president of the Rider Student Government Association, confirmed that tuition wasn’t the focus of discussion during restart planning with the administration and faculty, but is now because of the trajectory and impact of the coronavirus. “We feel strongly that students should be paying a tuition price proportional to the educational experience they are receiving,” he said. “Students have many options when it comes to higher education, and there is a reason they are choosing to be at Rider, but this semester is unique and it may require an overhaul of our prior financial rationale.”

Additionally, Erdelyi said the SGA senate recently authorized access to emergency funding from surplus Student Activities Funds. One planned use for the monies: a $100 per student subsidy for activity fees. “We felt it was extremely important to continue to provide key student services and offices with their full budgets, but we wanted to take some of that burden off of students,” he said.

Neukam said he’s also concerned about a host of potential issues with online instruction. “There are students who don’t have a reliable source for Wi-Fi or are unable to afford a laptop. Some students don’t have a home situation conducive to learning, and others have different styles of learning that make remote classes very challenging,” he said. “All of these problems can severely hinder a student’s education, one for which at Rider they’re currently paying regular tuition.”

Lessons from the spring semester

Rider, like all colleges, transitioned rapidly from in-person to remote instruction in the spring. This fall, according to the university, students can anticipate a different remote experience. “Rider has spent significant time and resources over the past several months to bolster our ability to offer more effective remote learning options,” Brown said.

She said faculty have worked with the university’s Teaching and Learning Center on course development and design and participated in workshops on engaging students in the synchronous classroom and other topics. Wi-Fi availability across campus is being upgraded, and multidirectional microphones have been purchased for classrooms, as well as other hardware and software options to enhance learning in the pandemic environment. And, she said, the university purchased 40 laptops to provide to students with financial need.

As for listening to students, Brown said, “The University has a strong relationship with our Student Government Association, and we want to continue hearing their voices, concerns and perspectives. Both prior to the pandemic, and especially now, we are keenly aware that affordability of a college education is a significant concern for families and students alike.”

No ‘traditional experience’ until a vaccine

Nicoletta Feldman, a senior at Rider, started an online petition for lower tuition that was signed by more than 1,600 people in two days. In addition to remote learning’s “significantly reduced quality” of educational and social experiences, the petition states, field work and internships are in jeopardy. “In layman’s terms, the ‘product’ that we’re paying for has been completely switched out on us, yet its price tag remains the same.”

For now, virtual college classes might have to suffice. “They’re not the same as the traditional on-campus experience, but there is no traditional on-campus experience until there’s a vaccine,” said Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education in the Department of Education Leadership, Management, and Policy at Seton Hall University. “At the end of the day, students are still getting the main thing they paid for — college credits toward a degree.”

Virtual teaching has its own downsides, beyond professors missing the in-person exchanges with students. Some faculty and staff are taking pay cuts, especially at private colleges, he said, while at the same time putting additional effort into creating the best remote learning experience they can.

As Brown, the Rider spokesperson, notes, “Just because instruction may be offered online, there are still fixed costs related to instruction such as the faculty who teach, counselors who advise, and academic support expenses, just to name a few.” Whether online or in person, these costs are primarily funded by tuition, she said.

“College budgets are under incredible stress after the spring semester and looking at losing a lot of revenue in the fall by not having students on campus,” Kelchen said. Still, many colleges, whether of their own volition or under the pressure of student demands, are offering some types of financial relief this fall, such as Rider’s $700 one-time grant, flat tuition or reduced fees. On an individual basis, however, colleges may provide additional financial aid to those who need it the most or the students the college wants to have the most.

Very few have the large endowment of Princeton University, which in early July announced a 10% tuition reduction for undergraduates and a waiver of activity and athletics fees for 2020-2021. And Rowan University recently approved a 10% tuition and fee reduction, saving in-state undergraduates more than $1,400. In a statement announcing the discounts, Ali A. Houshmand, Rowan University president, said the relief was possible because of “broad cost-reduction initiatives” and “doing even more with even less.”

The ability of a public college (as Rowan is) to offer such generous across-the-board tuition discounts is unusual, noted Kelchen, raising the question of where the cost reductions are coming from — whether paying adjunct faculty to teach classes, larger class size, or something else.

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