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Why some experts say coronavirus could lower the cost of college—but others say it's unlikely

Mask wearing students at the Boston College Campus on September 14, 2020.
Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald | Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has put a lot of pressure on colleges and universities. Schools have been forced to close their campuses, move classes online and take on the responsibility of testing, quarantining and protecting students.

Now, some experts wonder if schools will also be forced to lower tuition.

Students have long raised concerns about rising college costs, which have steadily increased over the past several decades and increased by more than 25% over the past 10 years

And when colleges were forced to shift to remote learning in March, many students requested refunds. One survey of 13,606 U.S. college students found that more than 93% of students believe that if classes are fully held online, tuition should be lowered. Numerous students sued their schools for coronavirus-related refunds. 

Nearly eight months into the pandemic, most schools are either completely or partially remote and students say they are not able to take advantage of the facilities, clubs and activities that once contributed to their college experiences. But school's and experts emphasize that offering online education is not necessarily cheaper to provide.

"Families are really upset, understandably, about being expected to pay pretty much the same expense for the online experience versus the traditional residential experience," says Kevin Walker, CEO of CollegeFinance.com. "Most schools that I know of are trying to do something, whether that's freezing tuition at last year's rates (which may not seem like much, but it's something) or in some cases, lowering tuition or lowering it on a credit-by-credit basis a little bit."

"But usually, students and families don't feel like it's enough."

Early data from the National Student Clearing House suggests that undergraduate college enrollment has decreased 2.5% this semester, and decreased most among students from low-income backgrounds as well as international students. 

Courtesy of National Student Clearing House
National Student Clearing House

Experts such as Edwin Koc, director of research for the National Association of Colleges and Employers, suggests that declining enrollments will force schools to cut prices.

"Even though the advantages of going to college are probably not going to diminish," he says, pointing to NACE data that suggest college graduates are among those who have been negatively impacted the least during the pandemic, "there'll be financial pressure on the schools to find ways to bring down costs simply because they are having to attract students that don't have the financial wherewithal to pay, to get in."

Koc says schools might choose to lower costs by reducing the number of academic programs they offer. He also predicts that investments in online education made during the pandemic may help schools lower costs in the long-run.

Andrew Rosen, CFP  partner at Diversified Lifelong Advisors predicts that colleges will adopt a "two-tiered system," in which schools offer a lower-cost online option as well as a traditional on-campus option, in order to bring in a wider range of students and to take advantage of the online learning infrastructure built during the pandemic. 

Others worry this tiered system could exacerbate existing inequalities in higher education. 

"I fear what would happen is the richer residential experience becomes more and more just something that the relatively well-off can take advantage of, and it further deepens the divide between people that are in our society," says Walker.

Ultimately, experts such as Ted Rounsaville, associate partner for McKinsey's higher education group, say it is too soon to tell if college costs will buck decades-long trends and actually decrease.

"If there truly are many more students who are not able to pay, or pay the previous levels that they were before, that could force colleges and universities' hands," says Rounsaville. "But the tale is not yet told as to whether the economic impacts of Covid and an associated recession are really going to force that hand.

"It's too early to say."

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