Christopherson: No, the Pandemic Doesn’t Warrant A 50% Tuition Cut

Students+at+the+University+of+Utah+are+following+the+COVID-19+guidelines+by+wearing+masks+while+working+on+campus+%28Photo+by+Abu+Asib+%7C+The+Daily+Utah+Chronicle%29

Students at the University of Utah are following the COVID-19 guidelines by wearing masks while working on campus (Photo by Abu Asib | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Nain Christopherson, Assistant Opinion Editor

 

It’s a rough year to be a college student, to say the least. Since the coronavirus pandemic forced colleges and universities to shut down in March, many of us have lost jobs and missed out on internships and studies abroad. Some of us have had to delay graduation or walk into a first semester fraught with uncertainty and fear. And of course, doing the bulk — if not all — of our coursework via Zoom and Canvas is emotionally exhausting and sometimes intellectually underwhelming. So it makes sense that college students here and nationwide have demanded tuition refunds and decreases in the wake of COVID-19 — but it also makes sense that our school hasn’t complied.

A recent Change.org petition titled “Demand a Reduction in University of Utah Tuition” argues that the U should cut all students’ tuition in half — from this semester until the pandemic is over — by taking that money out of its endowment. That idea sounds good on the surface — it obviously shouldn’t come out of our instructors’ paychecks or our own — and it might work out fine at schools like Harvard who charge absurd tuition rates and hoard endowments in the tens of billions. But implementing it at the U would hurt our school in the long run in many of the areas students are concerned about now. Let me explain.

In the 2019 fiscal year, tuition made up over $367 million of the U’s revenue. Assuming this year’s numbers are about the same, slashing that in half would require a $183 million hit to our $1.08 billion endowment, knocking it down to about $897 million in just one year of tuition decreases. That, in turn, would seriously hurt future revenue — at its current size, the endowment produces just over $124 million in investment income each year, which the school spends on instruction, research, student services and so on.

The bottom line is that there’s no way the U could cover half of all students’ tuition without serious additional funding from the state — whose budget, by the way, is also tight this year thanks to COVID-19. Any attempt to do so would jeopardize the quality of the instruction and resources University of Utah students receive for decades to come, and therefore undermine whatever prestige we currently enjoy.

That may or may not be a comfort to us now, which is fair enough. As a student teacher, a chronic procrastinator and a dweller in a deskless apartment, I understand that online classes are frustrating and don’t always seem to offer the same educational value as in-person ones. I’m sad not to be on campus during my last semester of classes at the U, and to miss out on lectures, social gatherings and other resources as a result. But it’s important to remember that the entire world is in crisis mode right now, including our professors and administrators.

There’s not an experience to be had in the United States that hasn’t been altered, often for worse, by the pandemic. Salt Lake City’s own K-12 students are missing out on in-person instruction for the sake of their safety. Millions of people have had or will have to delay elective surgeries this year, if not cancel them altogether. The entire US economy is in relative shambles — not because anyone wants it this way, but because we’re in a pandemic. Our expectations for a normal year just don’t apply.

It’s also worth noting that the U has taken some steps, meager as they might seem, to alleviate students’ financial burdens this semester. In addition to reducing student fees by $150, they have eliminated fees for online classes (which normally make those courses more expensive than in-person ones — they’ve never been cheaper), started an emergency fund for students who need “short-term aid” and foregone a scheduled tuition increase, even as they’ve lost 2.5% of their state funding. Importantly, senior university administrators have also taken a pay cut to help make all this possible.

We can and should still talk about canceling college debt and making college free to everyone in America. Those changes are necessary to reaching true educational and economic equity in the US, and they’re long overdue. But they’re part of a different, more future-oriented conversation. Right now, the unfortunate fact is that colleges in this country rely on tuition to educate their students and compensate their employees. And like all of us, they’re scrambling to find short-term solutions to what will be a relatively short-term problem, eternal though the last six months may have felt. So while we continue to push for free college and student loan forgiveness moving forward, we should be patient with the solutions the U has offered and the shortcomings it won’t be able to avoid.

 

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@nainchris