Paying big bucks for Zoom college? Colorado universities explain why they’re not refunding tuition

Samuel Adamson, a University of Colorado Boulder sophomore from Grand Junction, is trading in his Buffs gear to become a Colorado Mesa University Maverick come spring.

The 19-year-old and his family, fed up paying a regular year’s tuition for what is anything but a regular university experience, decided to ditch his dreams of a Boulder college ride and transferred somewhere cheaper and closer to home.

With merit scholarships and in-state tuition, Adamson’s family was paying about $6,000 a semester for his engineering degree at CU. He’s looking to pay about half that at CMU, where spring courses currently are expected to be a mix of in-person, online and hybrid.

“I don’t want to be hard on the professors because I know they’re trying their best, but it’s so hard to get stuff out of the online classes that were clearly meant to be in-person classes,” Adamson said. “So many you can tell are just forced into the online format and don’t translate well. A lot of the times there are technical difficulties.

“Plus, I’m just sitting in my bedroom all day not having a college experience.”

Universities across Colorado largely have charged students the same tuition in 2020 compared to non-pandemic years — thousands to tens of thousands of dollars — for what is, arguably, the most disrupted, helter-skelter year in modern higher education history.

Colleges burdened by unrelenting COVID-19 costs in a state that poorly funds higher education are being harangued for not refunding some portion of students’ tuition. Meanwhile, members of the staff, faculty and administration whose salaries comprise a good chunk of tuition dollars are speaking out about working harder than ever while facing pay cuts and furloughs.

The nuanced situation — disappointed students and families, diligent faculty and staff, and a butchered budget — worries Colorado’s higher education chief, who believes colleges must figure out how to convey their value to students before they lose them.

“I’m not sure that students are perceiving the value of higher education in this moment of crisis,” said Angie Paccione, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “Why should I go with all the risks I might be taking? What is the value of it to me if I’m not getting the experience I thought I would have?”

The value in higher education at any level, Paccione said, is earning a degree that lands its recipient a fulfilling job and maximizes their earning potential.

“It’s critical that students get a credential,” Paccione said. “Maybe not a bachelor’s, but you have to get something if you want to contribute to the economy, to the society and to your own livelihood and fulfillment,” Paccione said. “When you do, you earn a whole lot more money. One million dollars more in a lifetime, research shows.”

Paccione acknowledged most statewide institutions, hampered by restrictions on gatherings due to the novel coronavirus, haven’t been able to provide the traditional college experience of packed football stadiums, crowded lecture halls with boisterous conversations, and get-to-know-you events fostering community-building.

“But the substance and quality of instruction really didn’t change a whole lot,” Paccione said. “When you move the content from face-to-face to online, it’s different in its delivery, but truly not different in substance and quality… it’s the experience that I don’t know if I would pay for — that lack of experience. How do colleges, particularly four-year residential colleges, provide a different and even, perhaps, more meaningful experience virtually? That is a nut we have not been able to crack yet.”

“Not what I signed up for”

Sophia Volk, a second-year MBA student at CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, argues that she has neither received the quality education nor an experience worthy of the tens of thousands of dollars she’s shelled out over the spring, summer and fall semesters.

Volk has fought for a tuition refund for CU students since being rebuffed by university President Mark Kennedy, the majority of the Board of Regents and individual campus staff and faculty.

Over the summer, Volk paid more than $9,000 for two Zoom courses half the length of her previous year’s summer classes, cut shorter due to the pandemic-prompted switch to remote learning.

“After experiencing the remote instruction of spring, summer and now fall semester, I can confidently say that the program is of lesser quality and opportunity than what was offered when I enrolled in May 2019,” Volk said. “This is not what I signed up for. This is not worth the price tag.”

Volk, who started the Too Much Tuition CU campaign, said she supports remote education during the pandemic and recognizes that most instructors are doing their best. But she said there are significant changes to the program she originally enrolled in that are not reflected in her tuition bills.

Volk presented her case to CU’s Board of Regents and leadership team, and partnered with Regent Heidi Ganahl, who proposed a failed motion for a $2,000 tuition rebate for full-time students.

A handful of American universities, largely private schools, are providing tuition refunds, including the Southern New Hampshire University, which is reducing tuition by 61% by 2021 and covering 100% of first-year tuition; Johns Hopkins University, which is providing a 10% undergraduate discount for the fall semester; and Georgetown University, which is offering a 10% tuition reduction for some undergraduate students.

“Cut to the bone”

Todd Saliman, CU’s chief financial officer, said a tuition rebate would cost the university about $130 million and cause upward of 850 staff and faculty to lose their jobs.

During a November meeting of the Board of Regents in which Volk shared her disappointment with tuition prices and Ganahl again pushed for a tuition rebate, CU professors and staff shared their fears of lowering tuition at the expense of university jobs.

“We are working so hard — harder than ever — to deliver on the educational mission,” said Michael Zinser, a CU Denver psychology professor and faculty assembly chair. “We’ve been cut to the bone from a position of chronic state underfunding. A refund like this would gut our mission.”

Volk and Ganahl said they don’t want the money to come out of staff and faculty jobs, but would like to see some innovative thinking in which a multibillion-dollar enterprise identifies areas — building construction, administrative bloat, reserves — to make up the cost and give back to students.

“We have to get back to basics in making sure the money students are spending is for great faculty and great experiences and not in hiring more and more administrators to shift the money away from the faculty and classroom,” Ganahl said in an interview with The Denver Post.

Saliman said pandemic-related spending already had diminished CU’s reserves.

The Boulder campus alone took a $92 million hit between refunding room and board last spring, enrollment drops and massive state budget cuts over the summer. The university used about $30.5 million in federal CARES Act dollars, $24 million in reserves and $38 million in spending reductions to try to close the financial gaps, Saliman said in a presentation to the Board of Regents.

“Working harder than ever”

When Matt Griswold, Metropolitan State University of Denver’s associate vice president of online learning, explains how the pandemic impacted university costs, he starts by clearing up a common misconception.

“There’s been some belief that online learning should be a lower cost,” Griswold said. “Others think it should be equivalent to in-person learning and others are aware that it actually costs more.”

In addition to paying faculty salaries, effective online learning requires an investment in strong information technology departments to handle scaled-up IT issues, purchase appropriate software, security, WiFi and connectivity and get the infrastructure up and running, Griswold said.

Before the pandemic, 26% of MSU Denver’s overall ratio of credit hours enrolled were online. During the pandemic, that number has jumped to 94%.

“That took on a lot of additional costs,” Griswold said, noting that the massive switch to online learning also required teams to train faculty used to in-person education how to properly deliver their lessons online.

The total unanticipated costs associated with moving MSU Denver’s classes online this year were approximately $2 million, university spokesman Tim Carroll said.

“Facing horrible financial times”

Griswold and Saliman both stressed that paying talented people to do their jobs well in tough circumstances ate up a majority of costs. “When a student pays for tuition, they’re paying for their educational experience,” Saliman said.

He added that nearly every CU employee has been subject to pay cuts or furloughs due to COVID-19 budget impacts.

“They’re working harder than ever,” Saliman said. “I understand the frustration about student life not being the same. My life isn’t the same as it was. No one’s is, and that’s really frustrating, but that’s not what tuition pays for. Tuition pays for the educational experience, and we are providing that.”

Razor-thin budgets, unexpected COVID costs, the price of technology and fleets of exhausted employees who still need to be paid are a few of the reasons why colleges say they have no wiggle room to lower the cost of their product in the midst of the pandemic.

Deanne Adamson, Samuel Adamson’s mom, is sympathetic to CU’s plight — but it didn’t stop her from moving her son elsewhere.

“I get they’re facing horrible financial times,” she said. “Everybody is. But we pay a lot for this education. Every university is going to have to make some pretty hard choices. Does it have to be four years? Do we have to take all these credit hours to fulfill a degree? I just think it’s going to change the whole face of four-year education.”

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