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More than 93% of U.S. college students say tuition should be lowered if classes are online

Smiljana Aleksic | Getty Images

As the school year approaches, the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge in states across the country which means college students will be taking more of their classes online than in previous years. 

Prestigious schools such as Harvard University have committed to holding all of their classes online next semester and according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 46% of colleges plan to hold some, or all, or their classes online. 

While many students agree that social distancing is vital, many have also raised concerns that they are still paying full tuition for what is now an online education. 

According to a survey of 13,606 college students in the United States by study guide platform OneClass, more than 93% of U.S. students believe that if classes are fully held online, tuition should be lowered. 

OneClass also found that 75% of college students are unhappy with the quality of online classes and 35% have considered withdrawing from school.

These concerns have been shared by students across the country.

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"I would like to see a calculation around how much money is being saved by this remote instruction and using that to factor into a kind of refund to give to the students," Aaron Vanek, a rising senior at New York University told CNBC Make It in April after his campus was closed. "That seems like the fairest thing for me."

"There's been a push to lower tuition just because classes are going to be taught online," Robin Fierberg, a recent Stanford University graduate, said in April. "The university has said the tuition will not change."

Some students have gone as far as to sue their universities for coronavirus related refunds after the 2020 Spring semester was cut short. 

But others have pointed out that taking classes online is not necessarily more affordable. 

Experts say online education can be expensive for schools to administer, especially schools that have been forced to create online learning infrastructure in a rush. 

"Schools really need to do a better job of providing online education, not just Zoom in a hurry," says higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz. "So they'll have to invest in equipment and training."

These investments, he points out, cost money. 

"Some institutions charge more for online courses," says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. She explains that offering online courses can be more time-intensive for professors who are expected to respond to questions around the clock.

But Pasquerella emphasizes that there is a wide range in the quality and cost of online higher education. 

"We've seen the perils of online programs run by for-profit schools where students have very low completion rates and are left with large amounts of student debt," she says. "But there are other institutions that do online education very well, such as Southern New Hampshire University, which is cutting tuition for their students next year."

Todd Rose, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education says if his children were attending college this year he would recommend they at least temporarily go to a school that specializes in online education, such as Southern New Hampshire. He explains that college costs will remain high at schools such as Harvard, even though all classes will be taught online next year. 

"Harvard has an entire model that is built on a certain kind of experience, and we really believe that there's a lot of value to in that experience, but there's a lot of baked-in costs including incredible infrastructure costs and administrative costs," he says. "When we go online, it actually isn't that much cheaper because there are structural costs and legacy costs built into those incumbents."

"But I gotta be perfectly honest, that's not really [students'] problem," says Rose. "That's [Harvard's] problem."

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