As tensions rise nationally over tuition, Northwestern parents weigh in

Northwestern University. Students and parents across the country are grappling with the fairness of universities charging full tuition for online school.

Northwestern University. Students and parents across the country are grappling with the fairness of universities charging full tuition for online school.

Gabby Birenbaum, Print Managing Editor

As colleges across the nation have moved online and students adjust to taking virtual classes, pressure has mounted against universities to reconsider charging full tuition.

While several schools, including Northwestern, have offered full refunds for room and board fees after campuses shut down, they have not budged on tuition.

University President Morton Schapiro told The Daily in an email that no other schools have offered tuition refunds. Considering students are still receiving access, albeit virtually, to “world-class” faculty, full tuition is appropriate, he said.

Senior Vice President for Business and Finance Craig Johnson expressed similar confidence in the quality of Northwestern’s online classes, saying it justified charging the full $18,744 for Spring Quarter.

“Northwestern continues to provide a high-quality education and academic experience for its students, whether remotely or in person,” he wrote in an email to The Daily. “Our students saw that commitment demonstrated with the very successful launch of a remote Spring Quarter…our faculty and staff have also worked tirelessly over the last several weeks to prepare for remote instruction, and to continue to provide sections, office hours and research opportunities in support of rigorous learning opportunities.”

Johnson also said the University established room and board refunds, an athletic fee refund for undergraduates and an extension of the grace period for tuition bills to alleviate any economic uncertainty families may be facing in paying for the costs of college. But many undergraduates across the country feel universities are not doing enough.

In theory, the college experience is made up of more than just the classes a student takes. Students are paying for access to the on-campus libraries, laboratories and other facilities the school provides, in-person interaction with professors and opportunities to conduct research or engage in extracurricular clubs. Additionally, the value of a college experience also can lie in its social aspect, including campus traditions, Greek life and the unique dynamics, friendships, relationships and experiential learning achieved through clustering young adults together.

And even if tuition only serves to reflect the cost of classes, some students and parents have been frustrated by their quality, as some classes are only taught via pre-recorded lectures without live facetime with professors. Other classes fall under disciplines that may not translate well to virtual learning, such as theatre or music classes and lab-based science courses.

Those concerns were reflected in a petition signed by nearly 5,000 Northwestern undergraduates calling for a partial tuition refund.

“Due to the COVID-19 crisis, students paying for the Northwestern experience will no longer have access to invaluable face-to-face interaction with faculty, resources necessary for specific programs, and access to facilities that enable learning,” the petition says.

At other schools like the University of Chicago, the opposition to full tuition has mounted significantly. Administrators there recently agreed to freeze tuition through the 2020-2021 school year, meeting one of five demands outlined by the student group UChicago for Fair Tuition, which also asked for a 50 percent reduction in Spring Quarter tuition. As a strike tactic, over 800 students are threatening to withhold their tuition, which is due April 29.

At Johns Hopkins University, student government leaders are asking for a 25 percent tuition reduction. At both the University of Miami and Drexel University, students have filed class action lawsuits asking for tuition refunds on the grounds that the virtual experience they’re paying for is not of the caliber they were promised upon agreeing to pay full tuition at the beginning of the semester.

With increasing uncertainty around whether schools will open in the fall, the pressure to justify charging full tuition, and the likelihood of students taking time off rather than paying for more online class, will increase.

Many Northwestern parents expressed support for the University holding firm on tuition for a variety of reasons.

Michael Perlman is a parent of a Bienen sophomore and pays full tuition. The two reasons Perlman sees for asking for partial tuition are decreased class quality and increased financial hardship as a result of the economic fallout from the pandemic. While Perlman understands that families may find it more difficult to pay tuition during the pandemic, he thinks the University shouldn’t discount tuition wholesale as long as class quality remains unaffected. He said families’ finances are individual problems they each need to figure out for themselves, and by discounting room and board, the University has been generous in helping to ease burdens.

As for class quality, Perlman said he sees the same level of variance in professors that would exist on campus. At the end of the day, people pay tuition in order to receive a Northwestern degree, and as long as the degree still holds the same value, then the school should continue to charge the same amount, he said.

“If you still get the degree — unless you want a degree that says degree with an exception that you didn’t quite get the full qualifications — it’s still a good education,” Perlman said.

Northwestern parent Michael Zuckerman also agrees the University should charge full tuition, though his reasoning is different. Zuckerman, whose son is a Communication freshman majoring in theatre, said he pays about 40 percent of the price of tuition after grants and loans. His family’s earnings have been impacted by the virus, so he said he understands families are suffering, including his own. He also feels his son, as a theatre major, is not receiving education comparable to the in-person experience.

But he said the situation necessitates making sacrifices, and he is willing to sacrifice in paying full tuition if it means Northwestern can continue to pay its employees. Tuition and fees made up about a quarter of the school’s operating revenue in the 2019 fiscal year.

“Online instruction is questionable compared to what (my son) would be receiving in person,” Zuckerman said. “But that being said, I would still rather Northwestern try to keep as many employees hold throughout this crisis as they can rather than refunding a portion of my tuition.”

Not every parent finds charging full tuition acceptable, though. One parent of a McCormick senior, who asked to remain anonymous due to their expression of a conflicting opinion, said the diminished caliber of class and Northwestern’s deep resource pool, in which tuition is not the top source of funding, means Northwestern not only should not charge full tuition, but also has the capacity to not do so, particularly if it treated its endowment as a rainy day fund to help weather the economic storms of the era.

The parent, who pays full tuition, said the challenges of online class, combined with the lack of access to things like libraries, athletic events and extracurriculars, means students are receiving an experience worth about half as much as an on-campus one, yet are still paying for the full experience. In their view, the University has acknowledged the quarter is academically substandard by instituting mandatory pass/fail, but didn’t change tuition to reflect it.

Even a “symbolic” discount would be meaningful to the parent in that it would be an acknowledgment of the lessened value of the education, they said. Many of their son’s classes have eliminated synchronous learning altogether; they’re particularly aggrieved by one class in which the only assignment is to read a book.

“I’m paying a lot of money for my student to read a book that he can read on his own and not pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege,” the parent said. “No notes, no discussions, no interactions with teachers or with peers. To charge full tuition is to fail to recognize and acknowledge in any way that there is a diminished educational experience.”

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