Letter to the Editor: The U Needs to Reduce Tuition


Adam Fondren

The welcome wall on Presidents Circle at the University of Utah. Chronicle archives.

By Eden Merkley


We are collectively in the grips of a global health and economic crisis. The University of Utah, in fulfillment of its stated commitment to its students, is honor-bound to provide relief for struggling students and their families during such times of crises. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, no one will escape impact, and it will have a widely disproportionate effect on our marginalized communities. We have come together as a community to address the new realities that graduate and undergraduate students are now facing. That’s why I made a petition demanding that the University of Utah reduce tuition during COVID-19.

The University of Utah, which has $1.2 billion in endowments and received over $18.5 million from the CARES Act, has both the financial means and the responsibility to provide relief for us and our families. We urge the University to recognize students’ and families’ joint loss in income and address the direct impact of this loss on our ability to pay for tuition, along with housing, utilities, food, transportation and other expenses. The University must consider reducing tuition by at least 50 percent and waive all fees for the duration of the crisis, beginning in the Fall 2020 semester to uphold its commitment to every student’s ability to succeed. Further, we ask for COVID-19 concerns to be included in deferral/Leave of Absence, long-term budgetary transparency, and a tuition freeze.

Because of the University’s generous endowments, we believe it is in the strong interest of the University to direct some portion toward aiding its students during a global crisis. Many students do not have a financial safety net to pay for living expenses and are having to make increasingly difficult decisions. These include the decision to take out additional loans, incur further debt, take a leave of absence or in some cases, drop out.

Despite the best efforts of instructors, for many students, in-person interaction is integral to their studies. This change in learning format will highlight deep-seated inequities present in our community, as students have varying access to WiFi, stable housing, computers and technology, and the ability to work effectively away from the University. Tuition and fees also go toward campus resources and facilities, which will not be available for full use for the foreseeable future.

Tuition should reflect these current offerings from a perspective of fairness: a student attending University in Fall 2020, for example, will simply not have the full scope of facility access and usage as past students. Additionally, the University has demonstrated that public health is a priority. In concordance, we hope that the University will prioritize students’ mental health as students face extreme financial stress and anxiety during this very difficult and unprecedented time.

According to the University’s website, a student may apply to defer or take a leave of absence for the following reasons: illness, military service, and humanitarian or religious service. The University needs to redefine and update this to include COVID-19. The Coronavirus has disrupted the lives of most (if not all) students and their families. All students should be able to, without penalty, be granted leave or deferral due to any COVID-19–related concerns.

University of Utah students and families pay a hefty amount for tuition with little to no transparency about how the budget is allocated or why tuition continues to increase. Students struggle to understand how the University can justify charging full tuition for online classes; it has become resoundingly clear that full financial transparency is a must so that students know where resources are being allocated.

Finally, we urge the University to institute a tuition freeze. Despite efforts to improve financial aid, many students and their families cannot currently afford to pay tuition, causing students to take out loans, transfer or even drop out. Now, we are facing a financial recession caused by the virus which will likely far outlast the health crisis itself and will put many students and their families in an even more precarious position to pay tuition. The University must pledge not to raise tuition as projected by instituting a long-term tuition freeze after the health crisis has resolved.

We know that funding decisions are complex, especially during this unprecedented time, and that many of the University’s operating costs continue. We affirm and commend the University’s commitment to continue paying employees whose jobs have been suspended during this time, and we understand that student tuition is a part of the University’s operating costs. However, given the University’s endowment, reduced campus operating costs, fundraising capabilities and other revenue sources (e.g., the hospital), we also know there should be enough resources to continue paying staff while providing a tuition reduction to aid all students.

In light of this global crisis and its effects on our community, hundreds of University of Utah students will be continuing to engage the University around these issues through call-ins, email campaigns and wide media outreach. All students are deeply concerned and significantly affected by the crisis, and many are unable to justify the cost and are either prepared to withhold tuition, or not attend should the University not negotiate with us before the tuition deadline on September 4th, 2020.

We hope the University recognizes how demonstrating support for its students by taking these steps creates the opportunity to further solidify its position as a national leader within the field of higher education. The decisions that the University makes during this time will directly impact current and future students and will greatly influence students’ future engagement with and perception of the University post-graduation. The relationship between the University of Utah and its students is a symbiotic one and has the powerful potential to grow stronger than ever amidst these challenging times by working together.

— Eden Merkley, student at the University of Utah

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