Personal Finance

These colleges went to remote learning but hiked tuition anyway

Key Points
  • Stanford, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown and Harvard all raised undergraduate tuition for the 2020-2021 academic year, even though classes are being taught largely online. 
  • Students argue remote learning should cost less, not more, than an in-person education.
Purdue University president on keeping tuition costs flat during the pandemic
Purdue University president on keeping tuition costs flat during the pandemic

Until the coronavirus crisis, nothing had been able to slow the pace of annual college tuition increases.

Year after year, college costs edged higher, rising 3% to 5%, on average — outpacing inflation and family income.

However, in the midst of the pandemic, schools are under pressure to keep these increases in check. Several institutions said they would freeze tuition during the ongoing economic crisis, while a smaller number announced discounts or even more dramatic tuition cuts.

As a result, this year increases in tuition and fees were the lowest in three decades, according to the College Board — rising just 1% to 2% in 2020-21 at public and private colleges.

And yet, there were schools that raised their prices anyway, including some of the nation's most elite institutions, with healthy enrollment numbers and solid endowments.

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Stanford, Yale, Wellesley, Amherst, Brown, Dartmouth, Rice and Grinnell College all raised undergraduate tuition for 2020-2021 about 4% to 5%, even though classes are being taught largely online, according to a recent report by GoBankingRates. 

"There are no instructional cost savings for Grinnell to pass along to students who enroll online," according to Grinnell's website. "Consequently, we will not apply a universal discount to the cost of courses offered online."

Harvard University and California Institute of Technology were fully remote in the fall and invited only a limited number of students on campus for the spring. However, tuition still increased roughly 4% at both institutions.

At colleges across the country, undergraduates have voiced extreme dissatisfaction with remote learning, particularly at the same high cost they were previously paying for an in-person education.

Some have even taken their cases to court to argue that tuition should be lowered while they are studying from home. 

"Here we are in a pandemic, people cannot afford to pay more — they can't even pay the same amount," said James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust.

"This is going to come to a head again when institutions set their tuition for next year," he added.

Pandemic hammers higher education
Pandemic hammers higher education

Many schools, however, are in a bind. Most are facing a significant financial shortfall from declining public funds and decreased enrollment as some students decide to opt out, for now.

These days, tuition accounts for about half of a school's revenue and providing a college education — even online — is only getting more expensive, according to Richard Arum, dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine.

Paying for faculty is one of a school's largest expenses and those outlays remain fixed, plus there are extra costs from software and technological upgrades as well as new public safety measures due to Covid-19.

Already, universities have announced revenue losses in the hundreds of millions.

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