Personal Finance

As college classes move online, don't expect a tuition discount due to coronavirus

Key Points
  • For college students and their parents, remote learning may not have the same value as in-person instruction. 
  • However, don't bank on a tuition refund.
Ahmad Alsheikh, 18, was admitted to the Harvard class of 2024.
Source: Ahmad Alsheikh

For Ahmad Alsheikh, 18, gaining acceptance to Harvard's Class of 2024 was a lifetime in the making. 

Alsheikh and his family came to the U.S. from Syria, seeking asylum from that country's civil war. Yet in starting school as a high school freshman in southern New Mexico, "it was never in my expectation that I would even come close to applying," he said.

Still, Alsheikh worked hard and when he did get accepted early, he not only became the first person in his family to go to college in this country, he was also the first person in his high school to attend the elite Ivy League in nearly three decades.

A financial aid package made up mostly of scholarship money made it feasible. "It costs around $80,000 a year, and that was something I couldn't afford," he said.

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Now, Alsheikh says his primary concern is whether classes will be remote rather than on campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, amid the global pandemic.

"I really hope the fall semester doesn't get canceled or moved online," he said. "It's an experience I don't really want to miss out on."

Many students and their parents are arguing that remote learning is just not the same as face-to-face instruction — and the tuition tab should reflect that.

"There are a lot of added benefits to going to a brick-and-mortar school," said Aaron Rasmussen, CEO of Outlier.org, which works with the University of Pittsburgh to offer for-credit online college courses — and "Harvard is the gold standard," he said.

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"When you strip all of that away, you would assume the cost would be reflective of that," Rasmussen said.

In fact, when comparing the cost of an online course and in-person instruction, the difference is striking.

For example, the average cost for an in-person Calculus 1 course in the U.S. is $2,500, compared to $400 for the online equivalent, according to Outlier.

"A lot of schools have credited themselves on how exceptional their in-person education is," Rasmussen said. "Where it becomes a problem is when they have to turn on a dime — this is a big ask of parents."

There are a lot of added benefits to going to a brick-and-mortar school.
Aaron Rasmussen
CEO of Outlier.org

While a number of colleges and universities are offering refunds of fees and room and board, nearly all of them have drawn the line at tuition, according to Mayssoun Bydon, founder and managing partner of The Institute for High Learning, or IHL Prep, an educational consulting firm. 

"The value of the education comes from interacting with peers and faculty, and this continues to happen," she said. 

Others disagree. Some students have even filed class-action lawsuits to recoup some of the cost, according to a report by Law360.

"Paying @Harvard tuition for University of Phoenix experience," wrote one person on Twitter.

At the elite level, schools like Harvard have set themselves apart with small classes, distinguished professors and a strong community network, which is why some students and their families, when told to complete their coursework online, feel cheated out of some of the value associated with college attendance, said Richard Arum, dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine. 

Meanwhile, tuition and fees plus room and board for a four-year private college averaged $49,870 in 2019-20; at four-year, in-state public colleges, it was $21,950, according to the College Board.

"I do think it is a legitimate question and concern parents can have," Arum said. "If this situation drags on into the fall, colleges and universities have a responsibility to provide high quality instruction regardless of the delivery."

For those schools, on the other hand, tuition accounts for about half of their revenue and providing a college education — even online — is only getting more expensive, Arum added.

For starters, paying for faculty is one of a school's largest expenses and those outlays remain fixed, for now. In addition, there are extra costs from software and technological upgrades, Arum said.  That means many institutions likely won't have the financial means to provide any sort of tuition refund.

"The cost of providing instruction has not decreased, if anything there is an added cost to moving instruction online," he said.

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