COVID-19, college costs and a crisis that’s been years in the making

It’s no surprise that most colleges have decided to rely on partial or complete remote learning for now. And it’s no surprise, in turn, that students and parents are up in arms about being expected to pay the same high tuition.

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A lone pedestrian walks on the campus of University of Illinois at Chicago.

A lone pedestrian walks on the campus of University of Illinois at Chicago.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Why do so many eager college kids and their parents scrimp and save and go into five-figure debt to pay for higher education?

To get that full “college experience.”

Because college is not just about academics, as important as that is. It’s also very much about immersing oneself in a new environment and getting the chance to become an adult — to move away from home and into a dorm, hang out in the student union, get to know peers from vastly different backgrounds.

And, yes, it’s about those all-night parties.

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None of that is possible, at least not safely, in this time of COVID-19. Colleges that have welcomed students back to campus already for fall have seen coronavirus infections skyrocket, including more than 100 cases at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Nationwide, more than 26,000 cases and 64 deaths have occurred at some 1,500 colleges and universities since the pandemic began, a New York Times analysis found.

It’s no surprise, then, that most colleges have decided to rely on partial or complete remote learning for now, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

And it’s no surprise, in turn, that students and parents are up in arms about being expected to pay the same high tuition. They’re signing petitions demanding rebates. They are, without a doubt, getting less for their money in terms of academics. Online lectures and seminars will always be second-best.

As North Carolina State University professor Bret C. Devereaux wrote recently in The Atlantic, “With online classes,learning outcomes often disappoint, and virtual instruction runs counter to the most important asset at a major university: personal interaction with highly qualified experts.”

But let’s understand. The United States faced a crisis in the escalating costs of higher education even before COVID-19. The pandemic has only made a bad problem worse. Fixing the problem now will include most of the solutions that we and others were pushing long before anybody ever heard of COVID-19.

Colleges and universities have to do a better job of containing costs. Here in Illinois, the Legislature has to better fulfill its obligation to fund state universities, rather than permit ever-higher tuition bills. And, if our nation wants an educated workforce that can compete with the world, federal funding to higher education should be increased. College grads, too, will need more options for loan relief.

No easy resolution

There’s no quick fix, though we urge universities to do what they can immediately to relieve the financial burden on families that may be dealing with job losses and other difficulties caused by this pandemic.

Case in point: The University of Illinois system has created a special fund to provide at least $36 million to help students with COVID-related costs, including covering this year’s tuition increase for all in-state students.

But the hard truth is that colleges and universities themselves are in a bind. Even during the pandemic, they must pay faculty and other employees, yet they also face daunting new expenses for the technology and programming necessary for campus-wide online learning.

“It’s not as simple as simply prorating or cutting the cost [of tuition] because there are still bills to be paid,” Tony Minestra of the Illinois Association of College Admission Counseling told the Sun-Times recently. “There are some costs schools simply can’t untangle themselves from. They’ve got to run the campus.”

In Illinois, universities expect to lose millions of dollars in room and board revenue this year because so few students will be living on campus. Loyola University Chicago alone is bracing for a $50 million loss.

Years of state negligence

Colleges and universities already were reeling, in particular, from years of state funding cuts, which have led to crazy high tuitions, which has led to an explosion of student and family college debt.

According to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, inflation-adjusted per-student state funding declined in 41 states between the Great Recession of 2008 and 2018. In all, public universities lost $6.6 billion in state funds. Some 30% of colleges already were running an operating deficit even before the pandemic.

At the same time, colleges have to shoulder part of the blame. They have ramped up spending on expensive yet questionable amenities — spanking new athletic centers, plush dorms, fancy dining halls — that have been a factor in driving up overall college costs.

Two-year colleges

One other potential big solution often talked up by policymakers — free community college — is well worth a more serious discussion. It would give every high school graduate a chance to earn at least a two-year degree at a very low cost. And it might jumpstart a healthy competition with four-year schools, forcing them to work harder at controlling costs and offering more value for the buck.

There was a time, not so long gone, when an ambitious kid of limited means could work his or her way through a four-year college with just a part-time job, a decent state grant or scholarship, a modest student loan and maybe a little help from the folks at home.

In an egalitarian society that believes in every young person’s right to make something of themselves, why should it be any different now?

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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