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Shawn Tran is a recent graduate at the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in public health. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.
When you buy a product that doesn’t match its description, what do you do? The logical thing to do is return the product and get your money back. But some things are hard to get a refund for. College tuition is one of them.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have been switching back and forth between in-person learning and remote learning. Despite this back-and-forth between online and in-person instruction, one thing remains unchanged: the cost.
Students are paying the price of an in-person education for an online education. Colleges are charging mandatory transportation and campus fees despite students not even being on campus.
When students paid for their tuition for the 2019-2020 school year, they were paying for one academic year of an interactive and immersive on-campus student experience. That is the product we paid for. Halfway into the product’s life cycle, schools announced that in-person classes would be suspended.
We spent the remaining half of the school year learning virtually. The product served only half its life cycle, but there were no refunds or reimbursements. Some schools make exceptions, offering full to partial refunds to students who withdrew before the withdrawal deadline. But most schools don’t offer any money back after the fifth week of classes.
Students are once again being exploited by colleges. Many students returned to the classroom in-person last September. But after only half a school year of in-person learning, schools are returning to online learning. Some colleges are reverting to temporary online instruction.
For instance, the University of California at Berkeley is beginning the semester with a two-stage process, with most courses being offered fully remote for the first two weeks and then moving to fully in-person. Still, this is not what students are paying for. And yet colleges are doing nothing to compensate for these two weeks of wasted campus and transportation fees.
College tuition is already expensive. Two-thirds of developed countries offer college free of charge or at low costs to their citizens. The U.S. is not one of these countries. In the U.S., for the 2021-22 academic year, the average cost of tuition and fees for a four-year private college is $38,070. Notably, for public colleges, the cost of attendance varies by residency, but in-state tuition and fees for 2021-22 at four-year public schools averaged $10,740. Out-of-state tuition and fees averaged $27,560. The costs are even higher when taking into account room and board, books and supplies, health insurance, personal expenses, food and transportation.
A large portion of college tuition goes toward academic support, student services and auxiliary enterprises. Academic support provides libraries, museums, galleries, computer labs and other educational materials for students. Student services cover expenses for student organizations, career guidance, student newspapers and other activities that contribute to students’ well-being. Auxiliary enterprises are nonacademic staff and services such as dormitories, dining halls, football stadiums and swimming pools. If students are attending classes virtually from home, even if for only two weeks, they are not able to fully use the services they are paying for.
A few years ago, top colleges were embroiled in a college admissions bribery scandal. More recently, a number of elite colleges were accused of limiting financial aid. These incidents cast doubt on the ethics of our higher education system. Schools charge students exorbitant tuition fees but offer no refunds even when students are not getting what was promised — in-person learning, campus access and most importantly, support.