Fee frustration: Colleges can’t provide traditional campus experience due to COVID, and students (and others) say it’s not fair for them to pay for one

No conversation in higher education elicits stronger reactions than the debate about what’s fair for students to pay when digital is the dominant mode of learning.

And, even with most colleges staring down the fall semester’s start date within weeks, there’s no agreement on the right plan of action at New Jersey schools.

Some institutions, such as Rowan and Princeton universities, have instituted 10% discounts for students beginning their remote education this September. Other colleges have reduced student fees that are charged in addition to tuition. There have been universities announcing they’re halting planned tuition increases; there are universities marching ahead anyway.

Where there haven’t been concessions, students aren’t happy. They’re also not feeling optimistic, even if colleges had funds freed up by Gov. Phil Murphy announcing the state would apportion $150 million of its share of the federal CARES Act to the state’s colleges and universities.

Asking for more of a consistent approach from the state’s higher education institutions, Assemblyman Ron Dancer (R-Cream Ridge) has proposed that schools should be forced to choose between keeping state aid levels intact or keeping tuition for remote learning the same.

“What’s happened across our state is that you’ve gotten a few colleges and universities that have given some nominal discount if a majority of their classes were going to be virtual, but there were others that had not made any decisions,” he said. “I didn’t like the piecemeal approach. I believe there should be, rather, a statewide approach during this era — one that builds some uniformity.”

To do that, he’s hoping New Jersey’s Legislature gets involved in a way that hasn’t been done in other states. A bill he introduced, A4499, would have the state’s secretary of higher education determine a methodology for reevaluating state aid for colleges that aren’t reducing tuition and fees.

The assemblyman said that, in some cases, choosing not to steeply discount certain university fees would be egregious.

“Just as an example: There’s a computer fee, which at Rutgers (University) each semester is $171,” Dancer said. “They also charge a campus fee, which per semester is $1,145 in addition to the tuition. That’s for the student center, the recreation center — nice facilities to have when you’re on campus, but, obviously, there should be no charge when you’re not on campus.”

The legislation makes exceptions for the tuition and fees at community and county colleges. In his view, when it comes to the more expensive four-year institutions, there’s a risk of students — part of a generation already straddled with $1 trillion of student debt nationally — paying the same high costs for less.

“Now that we’re in the COVID-19 era, you have parents that assist students many times with their tuition that have certainly lost jobs, and unemployment benefits are dwindling,” he said. “It’s a burdensome time for students and their families … and they need relief.”

One of the legislator’s inspirations was the excitement surrounding an online petition asking Rutgers to slash tuition and fees for the fall. As of mid-August, business student Shreya Patel collected nearly the entirety of the 35,000 signatures asked for on her Change.org petition.

In an interview with ROI-NJ, Patel explained that she decided to take the lead on the protest effort — which has since been mirrored by other progressive coalitions of students, alumni and faculty — upon receiving an email announcing the university’s remote learning plan … one that left off details about the associated costs.

“That was the first thing that was really annoying to students — that they never addressed tuition and fees would be the same in their email,” she said. “That’s why I made the petition in the first place, because I don’t think a lot of people knew at the time that we weren’t going to get a refund on campus fees, at least.”

Rutgers has since announced a 15% reduction in its campus fees, but Patel said that only adds up to about $200 for students — not what she and others envisioned. At the least, she said, the college should be offering students more transparency.

“Since we won’t be there, it would be nice for them to tell us where our money is going, especially if it’s going toward resources that aren’t usable,” she said, adding that she wasn’t at all confident that she’d get a response from the administration that she and other students find satisfying.

Rutgers spokesperson Dory Devlin, in an email response, said the school’s board of governors took an unprecedented step by freezing tuition and fees for the coming year.

“(And) this action was taken in recognition of the economic stresses that confront every member of our community and despite cost increases in virtually every area of our operation,” she said. “Tuition and fees are set at the minimum amount required to provide our 70,000 students with a world-class education. A robust Rutgers education, whether delivered in a remote, hybrid or in-person fashion, is comprehensive and is provided by some of the finest scholars in American higher education.”

Devlin also contends that the campus fee reduction, which will translate to at least a $300 reduction in the term bills of full-time undergraduate students over the academic year, supports vital aspects of university operations. And, she added, the computer fee includes critical services for students, such as their email client, their myRutgers student portal and instructional technology services.

Robert Kelchen, associate professor and chair of the Department of Education Leadership, Management and Policy at Seton Hall University, studies the financial aspect of higher ed. He said that, from the university perspective, maintaining high-tier education remotely has been costly.

“So, the challenge is that colleges are already under financial strain from what’s happened during the spring or summer,” he said. “And what (tuition reductions) would mean for most colleges is getting that money from employees, meaning pay cuts, furloughs or layoffs.”

Kelchen, at the same time, understands frustration from the student side.

“They’re still getting the main thing they’re paying for: college credits,” he added. “But, it is true they’re not getting the social experience, or some of the student services. Those are things students lump into tuition, while colleges think of tuition more as paying the academic side of bills.”

Regardless of which argument wins out, the remainder of the academic calendar is going to be a complicated time, Kelchen said, one that might feature retroactive tuition reductions or other unprecedented actions.

“This is going to continue to evolve for many colleges throughout this fall semester,” he said.

Discordant notes

Laptop speakers might not have the acoustics of a concert hall, but they’ll have to do for music programs at universities during the pandemic’s school closures.

Rowan University
Rick Dammers.

Whether it’s Shakespearean prose or Mozart’s melodies, performing arts students have to do it all remotely, just like everyone else.

Rick Dammers, a professor at Rowan University and the dean of the performing arts department, said the online-only experience is maybe more of a trial than it is for other areas of study.

Coincidentally, Dammers published one of the first studies on video conferencing of music lessons — more than 10 years ago. That doesn’t mean he was fully prepared for the shift.

“For example, I never imagined having conversations about how you cut a slit in a mask to put a mouthpiece through and put a mask on the bell of your trumpet,” he said.

Still, Dammers believes he and his colleagues have made the most of the difficult situation. They’re improvising — as performing artists are wont to do.