It’s Not ‘Absurd’ that Colleges are Charging Full Tuition

Online instruction is an inferior product. But it's more expensive to deliver.

Journalist and adjunct lecturer Ross Barkan thinks universities are “ripping off their students” by charging full freight even as the switch to remote instruction:

Remote learning, no matter how well-intentioned, is a diluted product, and students deserve a tuition reduction for sitting at home and staring at a laptop screen. As someone who taught remotely this past semester, I strained to provide a comparable experience to what students were used to. Ultimately I could not. Professors cannot connect with students in the same way. And the ancillary benefits of college – making friends, networking with peers, joining clubs, playing intramural sports – are all lost.

There is an argument that students, especially at prestige schools, are still getting the value of a degree and therefore should pay the full freight. Isn’t the diploma ultimately what matters? But that’s not how colleges and universities pitch themselves to unsuspecting freshmen.

College life is not merely about scoring a dream job right after graduation. It’s supposed to be an experience. Behold our manicured lawns, our successful basketball team, our state-of-the-art fitness center, the newly revamped computer lab – and pay dearly for them. Part of the tradeoff of taking on crippling debt is supposed to be the creation of unforgettable memories, those four life-changing years you’ll never have again. Remote learning promises none of that.

There’s simply no argument on any of this.

My oldest stepdaughter is a rising senior at Temple ands they’re virtual for the fall, and quite likely the whole year. That sucks. Thankfully, she’s on a full-tuition scholarship so, while we’ll likely have her living with us, we’re probably ahead financially on room and board. Still, the last year and a half of her undergraduate experience is seriously diminished. But, balancing that against her contracting a deadly disease, it’s the lesser of evils.

Still, on an emotional level, I absolutely get it. I’m pissed that my daughters and youngest stepdaughter are getting short-changed by Fairfax County schools while I’m still paying an inordinate amount of property taxes to fund them—and, indeed, chose where I live largely based on the schools. But, intellectually, I understand that the money I pay isn’t just for my kids but for all of the kids in the county. And that, while the quality of the education has plummeted—and the burden on parents skyrocketed—there’s only so much they can do to transform a system designed around normalcy to cope with a once-in-a-century pandemic.

The same, of course, is true of colleges and universities, especially state-affiliated ones. Barkan nods at this,

Public schools are in a tougher position than their wealthier private counterparts. Tuition is how they generate much of their revenue, particularly after decades of cost-cutting by state governments. Many states have left world-class public institutions begging for money; the cuts after the 2008 economic crash were especially deep. Without a massive federal bailout package, public universities and community colleges will be suffering for years to come, starved of tax revenue in the wake of the pandemic.

Alas, he then sidesteps it with absurdity:

Still, these public institutions can offer tuition discounts while seeking cuts elsewhere. Fun fact: who is the highest paid public employee in the history of New Jersey? It’s Greg Schiano, the Rutgers football coach, who makes $4m annually. Rutgers, like other universities across the country, has been in an athletics arms race to match powerhouses like University of Michigan and Ohio State, which also happen to be public institutions. The profligate spending led Rutgers to amass a $100m athletic budget in the 2018-19 school year, running up large deficits.

Barkan is either being intentionally dishonest or hasn’t bothered doing a modicum of research here. It’s true that, in just about every state, an athletic coach is “the highest paid state employee.” But it’s complete bullshit. They make modest salaries from the taxpayers with massive supplements from boosters, sponsors, and other outside entities. And, while some colleges indeed lose money on athletics, Rutgers is in “deficit” because it made the business decision to move from the American Athletic Conference (a bastard stepchild of the old Big East) to the Big Ten; it’ll net a huge profit in the long run but it took out a big loan to make the move.

The bottom line is that, while many if not all colleges and universities have some distance learning programs, few had the infrastructure in place for one hundred percent remote instruction. It’s taking a massive investment in bandwidth, technology, and training to make it work. That’s incredibly expensive and the schools have no way of defraying that.

Indeed, as Barkan acknowledges, many state schools haven’t recovered from the 2008 crisis. And we’re now in an economic meltdown that’s worse than that one. Where is the money supposed to come from?

There’s an argument for Harvard and other huge-endowment private schools to give students a token discount. A few are. But, while they’re ostensibly selling a great education, networking, and all the rest—and indeed provide those things most of the time—they’re mostly selling their brand. If students at Harvard or Stanford don’t like the deal they’re getting, there are thousands of equally-qualified kids waiting to take their place.

FILED UNDER: Academia, COVID-19, Education
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    Here’s something that I find disturbing: The Harvard Medical School, like the Business School, the Law School, and I assume the other grad schools, has gone remote. This will work, more or less, with law, business, and government. But…medical school? You need labs.

    That’s true, of course, of pre-med and any undergraduate courses in the sciences. I don’t know how these students will fare. What do you substitute for hands-on?

    2
  2. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @CSK:

    Agreed. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable being treated by a doctor who learned his craft via Skype.

    On the broader theme, online education has always seemed to me to unavoidably involve a large component of the students teaching themselves. Many programs involve no actual lectures (as I understand it), choosing instead to distribute the materials and assign deliverables. In that scenario, it’s difficult not to begin to view the professor as a sort of babysitter to some degree, present and checking off various boxes, but contributing comparatively little in terms of actual education. Admittedly I have never attended one of these classes, so my knowledge of them is indirect and anecdotal, but if accurate, a discount would be the beginning of the adjustment that’s due. I’d unavoidably question the relative value of the degree as well

    1
  3. wr says:

    @HarvardLaw92: “Admittedly I have never attended one of these classes, so my knowledge of them is indirect and anecdotal, but if accurate,”

    I can’t speak for every program, but for the two MFAs I teach in, what you describe is nothing like the reality. I prefer the in-person experience, but I’ve led enough eight-hour Zoom classes to assure you they aren’t “babysitting.”

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  4. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @wr:

    If they’re using something like Zoom, then absolutely. That would be an entirely different scenario than what was described to me, agreed. That direct contact and verbal give / take in lectures is something I’d consider to be vital to the whole learning experience. I’d agree that I’d probably still prefer in-person (I cant imagine doing 1L via Zoom), but it’s much better than what I’d been told. Glad to find I was misinformed, tks.

    2
  5. Moosebreath says:

    We are wrestling with this issue now, as my older daughter was just advised today by the college she is starting in the fall that they are going on-line only for the fall. She wants to major in animation and some of the work is to be hand-drawn, so it isn’t clear how much a different it will be having to submit projects on line.

    The school said they would be willing to cooperate if she wants to delay admission, which we are considering.

    Or she could live on campus, but can only get access to classrooms if she needs to use any special equipment, plus dorms are being converted to 1 person per room to enable social distancing, plus dining service will be carry out only, which means she will get no college experience at all. As a result, this is our least favorite choice.

  6. Kathy says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    I’ve learned a great deal of history from Great Courses lecture series. They’re great, and well worth what an Audible credit (even some shorter ones). But I can’t tell you how many times I wished I could have asked the lecturer a question.

    1
  7. James Joyner says:

    @wr: @HarvardLaw92: When I taught online classes in the 1999-2002 timeframe, it was all text-based bulletin boards. But when we did it this year, it was ‘face-to-face’seminars using Zoom, Google Meets, and other pretty advanced tech. It’s not the same—and would have been worse if we hadn’t spent eight months building in-person relationships ahead of time—but it was legitimate teaching.

    3
  8. CSK says:

    @HarvardLaw92:
    Years ago, I had a minor surgical procedure done at a major Boston teaching hospital. Beforehand, I signed a paper consenting to the surgery being observed by medical students. I assume this sort of learning experience is on hold as well.

    1
  9. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @James Joyner:

    I can see how that would be the case. I’ve never officially taught a university class (and I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t be well suited for it, so kudos to you both for what you’re doing), but I have been called on to do the odd seminar or targeted lecture here and there. I had to conduct one of them on Advanced Antitrust via what I’d consider to be an early iteration of videoconferencing, and I’d agree – it just wasn’t the same experience. The information got received, and the banter/questioning was lively, so I’d consider it to have been successful in a technical sense of the word, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as in-person. I feel certain that the participants would probably say the same. It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly was missing, but I know that something was.

  10. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @CSK:

    I’m not sure how they’d avoid putting the program on hold for something as intrinsically hands on as surgery. Absolutely.

  11. It is also simply a fact that the cost of a large campus does not go away if students are online, nor do personnel costs diminish (typically a huge percentage of the annual budget).

    And there is a discount if students are truly 100% online: they are not paying for dorms and meal plans and host of other auxiliary services (although they often do still pay fees associated with some campus services).

    But, again, think about paying faculty: they are working harder than a normal year to deal with this ongoing crisis. And their salaries are funding in large measure by tuition.

    I am sympathetic to concerns about costs and diminished experiences for students, but as James notes: this is a once in a century (please!) event. We are all doing the best we can (with some notable exceptions in Washington).

    5
  12. @HarvardLaw92: There is a spectrum of quality with online learning, some of which fits the description of what you cited. It is an ongoing process to push quality upward, and there are plenty of tools these days, even for asynchronous classes, to do better than “here, read this and get back to me.”

    2
  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @HarvardLaw92: On the phenomenon of Zoom not being the same as in person, the best explanation that I have heard involved the reality that the screen creates a tangible barrier so that you perceive that you are separated from… well… reality.

    It’s part of the reason that Rev. Dr. Whoever it might be is shot close up and looking at the camera for significant portions of the sermon (and all of the pitch for donations/come to Jesus/get a prayer cloth/and so on). The illusion that the pastor is preaching “directly to me” helps break the barrier of the screen. On Zoom or other media that use your computer’s camera, if you look at the camera, you can’t actually see the screen in most circumstances. Eye contact is an important factor.

  14. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    That actually makes a great deal of sense. Hadn’t considered that before, but thinking back it would explain a lot of the disconnected feeling.

  15. DrDaveT says:

    Let me stand in for the real economists for a moment and note that it doesn’t matter what it costs to provide the service. What people are willing to pay for the service is independent of that. If what people are willing to pay is not enough to cover your costs, you don’t have a business. If what they are willing to pay is way above your costs, you will get rich. This will settle into an equilibrium over time in which supply and demand balance, because not everyone is equally willing to pay — but you can’t make people be willing to pay more just because it costs you more.

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  16. de stijl says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Thank you!

    1
  17. de stijl says:

    God forbid that a school is not immune.

    Colleges and universities sell credentials. (Yes, I know it is more than that.) Credentials that allow you to earn more. A devalued credential is worth less to buy.

    As Leonard Smalls sez:

    Price. A fair price. It is not what I say it is or what you say it is. It’s what the market will bear.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    This will settle into an equilibrium over time in which supply and demand balance, because not everyone is equally willing to pay — but you can’t make people be willing to pay more just because it costs you more.

    Oh, absolutely. And students and parents are free to take their money elsewhere. But it makes no sense to offer the product at below cost in hopes of making it up in volume.

    If there were a mass revolt, I suppose some colleges might take out loans and hope the whether the storm. But then they’d have to amortize that over future students.

    I do think a significant number of marginal schools will go out of business over this.

    2
  19. Mu Yixiao says:

    It might not be “absurd”, but I’d put it firmly in the “unacceptable” range. While there are still faculty and some support staff working, a large part of the services that the tuition pays for aren’t available: campus clinics, libraries, labs, sports facilities, and community centers to name a few.

    Tuition also goes to paying staff that aren’t needed (or are reduced) when nobody’s in the building: Janitors, librarians, maintenance crews, cafeteria staff, RAs, security, parking attendants.

    Physical overhead is greatly reduced: Water, electricity, gas (for the cafeterias), paper and office supplies, garbage bags, toner, and thousands of other little things that add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars or more per year.

    And that’s on top of the fact that tuition has become horribly bloated. It’s gone up 226% (adjusted for inflation) between 1985 and 2017 (the last year the government has figures for). Are students today getting 225% more education and experience than I did back in the 80’s?

    4
  20. Sleeping Dog says:

    @DrDaveT:

    To DrDaveT’s point, a friend told me his son, who will be college junior this year has decided to take the year off rather than do remote classes.

  21. JohnMcC says:

    @de stijl: “Colleges and universities sell credentials.” They also sell access to what I’d call a ‘rolodex’.

    1
  22. @Mu Yixiao:

    libraries,

    It is worth pointing out that even when schools go online, the librarians do not all go home/stop working. They have to shift services online. More significantly, database costs are one of the largest items in a university library’s budget.

    It is true that there are some savings on electricity and water.

    In terms of a lot of the staff you note: a lot them remain on the payroll (unless you think they should all lose their jobs–and isn’t like activity on campus goes away entirely). The grass still grows, whether students are walking across the quad or not. Maintenance still has to take place.

    If we are talking about a long-term shift online, then yes, some of those costs go away forever. You don’t need a dining hall or an exercise center if no one is on campus. But if we are just in a pause, the fundamental cost structure doesn’t change.

    Also: you do end up shifting expenditures into enhancing online delivery.

    4
  23. @DrDaveT: All of this is absolutely true. But “over time” is one thing versus right now in the middle of generation-level crisis.

    1
  24. @James Joyner:

    I do think a significant number of marginal schools will go out of business over this.

    I think this is 100% the case. A lot of schools were already facing substantial pressures. Many, as was noted, have not fully recovered from the Great Recession. Also: a lot of schools were built on the notion that the number of students would always be increasing, and so demand would continually grow. In many parts of the country, that is no longer the case.

    2
  25. de stijl says:

    @JohnMcC:

    Never availed myself.

    If you’re a rolodex (“rolodex”-we’re so old!) person you are either a community minded mentor or a sex creep selling access for exchange. And you cannot tell unless you engage.

    Chose not to avail.

  26. rn2md says:

    @CSK:

    I can’t speak for the Boston area, but I’m a second year medical student at Tulane. The third and fourth years are doing clinical rotations, which is the norm at most medical schools. Our deans argue, and I agree, that clinical experience is critical to medical education and essential in deciding on a specialty to pursue. I am fairly certain that some type of clinical rotations are continuing at most medical schools with some modifications in place for covid.

    1
  27. @Mu Yixiao:

    And that’s on top of the fact that tuition has become horribly bloated. It’s gone up 226% (adjusted for inflation) between 1985 and 2017 (the last year the government has figures for). Are students today getting 225% more education and experience than I did back in the 80’s?

    I don’t disagree that the cost of tuition is too high.

    There are multiple reasons, including ongoing diminutions in state support, causing schools to have to raise tuition. This also has the perverse effect of having schools have to compete on the basis of things like quality of dorm space, exercise centers, and other amenities. This increases costs.

    Consider: your school has to get a higher percentage of it budget from tuition. Your dorms suck. State U a few hours from your school has nice new dorms that really impress 18 year-olds. You decide you have to build new dorms to attract students. Ditto with the fitness center, etc.

    18 year-olds, it might be surprising to learn, often care less about the quality of academic programs than they do about dorms, student life, and the like.

    It is also true that technology has become far more prevalent since the 1980s. I was in college in the mid-to-late 80s. My university library had an electronic card catalog, which seems pretty advanced at the time (UNIX-based terminals networked for all UC system libraries). We also had a small bank of computers with some databases on them (they were, I believe all stored locally on harddrives and were physically updated on a regular basis).

    There was no internet. There weren’t banks and banks of computers for student use. The campus was not blanketed in a WiFi network that had to handle several devices per person (not to mention Netflix and XBoxes in the dorms). Every faculty member did not have a computer in their office.

    Fundamentally, “public” schools are largely state-supported, not state-funded. I think that somewhere between 24% and 28% or our operating budget comes from the state.

    Should tuition be lower? I think it should. Are there things that schools could do better and differently to lower costs? Probably, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds. State and federal governments should do more to subsidize colleges and universities in my opinion.

    But trying to adjust prices on the fly in the middle of pandemic sound easy, but it isn’t.

    And I will say, from own experience, everyone at my university is working harder than they ever have to deal with this situation. First in shifting online and now trying to deal with a modified face-to-face experience in the Fall.

    4
  28. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    In terms of a lot of the staff you note: a lot them remain on the payroll (unless you think they should all lose their jobs–and isn’t like activity on campus goes away entirely). The grass still grows, whether students are walking across the quad or not. Maintenance still has to take place.

    Which is why I said “or reduced”. Yes, the grass still grows, but there’s no wear-and-tear on the buildings, so all the little things that commonly go wrong aren’t there. They can operate with a much smaller staff.

    The factory where I work is very open about their financials–even more so during all of this. Our manufacturing is running at 100% (two shifts) at our main facility, and has been for a couple months now. Office staff are at mostly at 50% and working from home. Facilities just came back to 90% staff about 3 weeks ago, janitorial is still at about 25% staff, and the deli is unstaffed. Without people in the office, there’s a lot of work that just doesn’t need doing.

    The UW Madison has 21,000 employees supporting 43,000 students. If no classes are taking place in the buildings, I’m betting that staff is greatly reduced. And I doubt that those who are furloughed are still collecting full salary or wages. They’re on unemployment.

    Costs are going to be a lot lower. Click costs on the copiers alone could run into the millions.

    In the meantime, students are getting far less. Lecture-hall classes online is no big deal. But you need hands-on, in-person lessons for even 200-level classes in engineering, medicine, chemistry, horticulture, agriculture, etc. Forget about doing anything of value in theatre, music, or the culinary arts.

    Labs/practicum are highly collaborative in nature and require doing the work to learn the skills. Students aren’t paying for words, they’re paying for world-class engineering facilities (#24), a top-rated medical research opportunities (#24), and a fine arts program ranked #15 in the US (#1 in printmaking).

    You can’t recreate that via Zoom.

    1
  29. CSK says:

    @rn2md:
    Thanks. I’m going to assume this is standard practice. How is Tulane addressing the issue of other hands-on work, such as cadaver dissections in first and second year anatomy classes?

    1
  30. rn2md says:

    @CSK: That is a safe assumption for medical schools with a traditional curriculum where the first two years are devoted to basic sciences and the last two are dedicated to clinical rotations.

    At Tulane anatomy is a first year class. The first years take it from the beginning of August and finish at Thanksgiving break. Typically, lecture ends at 9 am and all 190 students migrate upstairs to the anatomy lab and dissect until around noon. As for this year, I don’t know how things are going to work for anatomy. I asked an anatomy TA friend a few weeks ago and he hadn’t heard anything.

    For second years (myself included), instruction is gonna be a mix of online instruction and small group work with masks required for all in person activities.

    1
  31. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I think this is 100% the case. A lot of schools were already facing substantial pressures. Many, as was noted, have not fully recovered from the Great Recession. Also: a lot of schools were built on the notion that the number of students would always be increasing, and so demand would continually grow. In many parts of the country, that is no longer the case.

    I really don’t have a problem with this. Universities need to have their fat trimmed.

    The notion that everyone needs a degree–regardless of what it’s in–is why there’s a severe shortage of tradesmen in the US (despite the fact that they make really good money; a journeyman electrician in Madison can make up to $73k–2.3x the local average income).

    And a not-insignificant number of those degrees are in subjects that are meaningless in the real world. I have no problem with my taxes supporting education–that where I want them to go. I do have a problem with students who rack up $150k in debt for a degree that’ll get them a job doing data-entry for slightly above minimum wage.

    And… UW Madison has 21,000 employees for 43,000 students. One employee for every 2 students. Seriously?!

    Universities could use a little market pressure to get them back in line and back in the business of educating a population that can contribute back to society.

    Sorry, but this is a hot-button topic for me.

    I came from a lower-middle-class family. I was the first person in my family to go to university (and I’m the youngest), and the 5th in my extended family (one aunt went to nursing school, and 3 cousins were a year or two older than me).

    In their entire 50-year marriage, my parents owned one new car. I worked my ass off in high school to earn high grades and do community work that would land me merit-based scholarships. I worked weekends during the school year and full-time in the summers to save up for school. My parents helped to pay for 4 of my 10 semesters in university. I paid for everything else–including all my expenses for off-campus housing for years 3-5.

    I remember getting $3 in a letter from Mom and waving it in my friends’ faces singing “I got threeee dooooolllars!”

    I got work-study with the university doing carpentry work. I would put in 20-hours or more a week on top of my class load. Then I’d wash dishes and scrub toilets all summer to pay for the next year.

    I graduated with a single loan of $2,500. And that was only because I took the opportunity to study in London for a month. That covered air-fair, lodging, tube pass, $400 in prof-dispersed allowance, and $500 in extra spending money. It was paid off a year later.

    Yes. I’m a grumpy old man. Now get off my lawn!

    3
  32. @Mu Yixiao: You are conflating some real issues with response to a crisis, however. I am not going to argue the issue that there is a real problem with the cost of getting a four-year degree.

    What I am telling you, as someone with direct, ongoing operational knowledge, that there are no significant short-term savings to be associated with this crisis that can be passed on to students. Indeed, it is likely the opposite.

    You are free to accept or reject that as you will.

    Also: UW Madison is a flagship, which is not a good baseline comparison to the entirety of higher education.

    1
  33. @Mu Yixiao:

    Labs/practicum are highly collaborative in nature and require doing the work to learn the skills. Students aren’t paying for words, they’re paying for world-class engineering facilities (#24), a top-rated medical research opportunities (#24), and a fine arts program ranked #15 in the US (#1 in printmaking).

    You can’t recreate that via Zoom.

    Oddly enough, I understand that, given my daily existence.

    1
  34. @Mu Yixiao: BTW, isn’t UW Madison going face to face in the Fall?

    I know Harvard, which is going online only (but with some weird 40% of kids on campus) and the Cal State system is going online.

  35. Grewgills says:

    @CSK:
    My brother in law is doing his surgical residency now and it’s all in person. They are actually trying to accelerate getting some residents in. As for observations, zoom or other tech is as good as standing behind a glass screen and watching from a distance, probably better.

  36. Grewgills says:

    @de stijl:
    They’ll still get the credential and a couple years down the line when they are working based on that credential I doubt many people will be viewing their credential as less because a year of it was online, hell there are plenty of online only programs available from the same institutions that we are talking about.
    The students will get less to be sure, but that less won’t be a credential that is worth less in getting a job, it will be less in the aggregate in information learned and less in 100s of less tangible ways.

  37. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    What I am telling you, as someone with direct, ongoing operational knowledge, that there are no significant short-term savings to be associated with this crisis that can be passed on to students. Indeed, it is likely the opposite.

    Can you show any evidence to back that up? How will costs increase?

    You are free to accept or reject that as you will.

    I don’t accept it because you’re not presenting any data, just “what you feel”.

    I’ll use UW-Mad as my baseline because it’s where I live. Name another school and I’ll do the same calculations.

    * 43K students + 21k staff x 6 copies/week for 30 weeks = $1.15M in clicks (@10¢/click)
    * That’ll cost another $77k in paper.
    * The average person uses 57 sheets of toilet paper in a day. Cheap toilet paper comes in at .003¢/sheet, which comes to 17¢/person/day. Drop that to 70% to account for usage at home, multiply by 30 weeks… that’s $1.6M
    * If the average toilet usage is 2 flushes per day (for a 30 week term), at 2¢/1kG, that’s another $2.6M

    I’m up to $6.12M only addressing a few of the basics. You say that the new needs balance that.

    How will it cost the UW-Mad $6M to convert to online classes? Take the basic costs, apply them to your institution. If you’d like more realistic numbers, add in soap for the bathrooms, garbage bags, pads for the floor scrubbers, paper towels… would you like me to get a list of consumables from the head of our janitorial services?

    How do the students get compensated for the lack in-person time (especially for those studies which require in-person time)? And what about the loss of all the other services and amenities that come with being on campus?

    I will say it again: Students aren’t paying for words. They’re paying for an immersive experience. From what I understand, you teach history, theory, and critique. Go talk to any of your colleagues that teach physical skills and ask them what they think about online-only classes. Then talk to their students. Do they think they’re getting what they paid for?

    I’ve never been a prof, but I’ve taught EFL classes–both in person and online. I quit teaching online because I couldn’t give the experience that the students needed. And that’s just teaching language.

    Also: UW Madison is a flagship, which is not a good baseline comparison to the entirety of higher education

    .

    Aside from the rankings, why not? Given the large enrollment, the opportunities for hands-on work are actually fewer than at smaller institutions.

    I went to a tiny university in the UW system. I’d have actually been more pissed off if my classes had been shifted to online-only. After my freshman year, I think my largest class was 20, and the average was 5-10. 30-50% of them involved hands-on work. By my final year, that rose to 80% in general, and 100% in my discipline. Contemporaries who when to UW-Mad would be lucky to get a tenth of the practical experience I did.

    So… On the one hand you’re right: UW-Mad isn’t typical. On the other hand, atypical universities attract students because they can offer hands-on experience that students can’t get at larger, more prestigious schools. On the gripping hand, students apply to flagship schools like UW-Mad specifically because they offer access to high-end resources. If they don’t have access to those resources, why should they pay the premium tuition?

    If I make reservations for a romantic dinner at a nice seafood restaurant, I’m not going to accept “fish & chips” in a to-go box.

    1
  38. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Mu Yixiao: All of the costs that you are referring to are variable costs rather than fixed costs. The fixed cost structure of the institution will not change in the short run, and needs to be covered regardless of whether or not students are living on campus. The variable cost structure is what increases on a per unit-of-activy basis as a function of the number of units of activity utilized.

    Individual students can decide for themselves to avoid the variable costs of room and board if they want to avoid living on campus this semester (which would be prudent). But if they sign up for a class, they need to pay for that class, and all of the supporting costs that go along with it (bonds for the buildings, salaries of the faculty and the administrative staff, etc.).

    Families could choose to argue that they shouldn’t have to pay fees like the athletics fee, recreational fee, photocopy allowance, transit fee, etc., but that likely would go get them anywhere in the short run. As long as students want the credential and don’t want to shop around from semester to semester chasing down the cheapest education and dealing with all of the ins and outs of transfer credit and ‘credits in residence’ requirements, a majority of students will finish where they started unless they are making a permanent shift to a different institution. And if every school is maintaining that fee structure in the short run, the only realistic option to save money would be to either a) stay home and take all online classes for Fall, or b) take Fall 2020 off and resume in the Spring.

    So the short answer to all of the questions you are asking is “They aren’t changing their cost structure in the short run because they don’t have to. Their customer base will be back in the Spring, regardless.”

    In the longer run, they will have to deal with these questions. Especially if/when a sizeable portion of their first and second year students decide to shift to their local community college or regional state university for their lower-division coursework.

    1
  39. @Mu Yixiao:

    I don’t accept it because you’re not presenting any data, just “what you feel”.

    No, I am not. I am speaking to what I am seeing in my professional life. You are not.

    Indeed, since you noted above, “Sorry, but this is a hot-button topic for me” I think it is actually more likely that you are the one asserting what you feel.

    I am honestly trying to explain something I actually know something about. You don’t have to accept it. You are countering based on your impressions.

    2
  40. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Also, Mu, the “21,000” number that you refer to doesn’t mean that there are 21,000 full-time employees at UW-Madison.

    I just looked that their Employment page, and that number includes all of the Graduate Assistants. At a flagship university, that will include almost all graduate students outside of professional degree programs. According to wikipedia, there are roughly 15,000 graduate students at UW-Madison, so probably around 10,000 of them are both a student and a GRA or GTA.

    That number also does not separate out adjunct faculty, which sadly seems to a larger and larger proportion of total headcount throughout higher education every year..

    Finally, I looked through the UW System’s 2019 Annual Financial Report. While they do not provide a breakdown by institution,

    “The University is made up of 13 four-year universities and 13 additional campuses affiliated with seven of the four-year institutions. In academic year 2018-2019, the University enrolled 171,636 students, employed approximately 32,456 faculty and staff, and granted 36,690 associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and other advanced degrees.”

    That’s 32,456 full time regular employees for the entire UW System, including the System offices and all of the various research centers affiliated with system components, supporting 171,636 students, a much different ratio than you’ve come to believe.

    If you’re interested in seeing the breakdown of costs among Instruction, Research, Student Services, etc., you can search for “NOTE 12 – Operating Expenses by Functional Classification.”

    2
  41. @Gromitt Gunn:

    So the short answer to all of the questions you are asking is “They aren’t changing their cost structure in the short run because they don’t have to. Their customer base will be back in the Spring, regardless.”

    In the longer run, they will have to deal with these questions. Especially if/when a sizeable portion of their first and second year students decide to shift to their local community college or regional state university for their lower-division coursework.

    Exactly. Yes, if school shifts permanently online, certain costs go away (although other ones emerge). But, as you note, we are talking about a short term disruption.

    Even if UWM spends $1.6 million a year on TP (which seems unlikely, but I will admit that I don’t actually know), then they have already bought it and they have to pay the bill (likewise to service the debt on the new dorms, or whatever). These costs do not evaporate because of short term disruptions.

    Further, basic costs remain the same (i.e., salaries and benefits and keeping the campus itself open).

  42. @Mu Yixiao: Also, please note, UWM is not going online in the Fall (as I noted above).

    But, of course, I am just arguing from how I feel.

    1
  43. CSK says:

    @rn2md: @Grewgills:
    This is encouraging.

    1
  44. @Mu Yixiao:

    If I make reservations for a romantic dinner at a nice seafood restaurant, I’m not going to accept “fish & chips” in a to-go box.

    No, but right now if you order a to-go menu for curbside pickup from a nice restaurant, you are going to pay full menu price, even though part of that menu price is to pay for the ambiance you aren’t experiencing and the service that you aren’t getting.

    The local restauranteur still has rent to pay and upkeep on his restaurant and he passes that cost on to you in your curb-side meal even if you aren’t getting the normal experience.

    No doubt if we were to permanently go to curb-side service he would downsize his physical space (maybe get a food truck) and then he would lower the prices on the menus.

    1
  45. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: For sure.

    Since I teach mostly aspiring Aggies and current Aggies trying to earn some cheap lower-division credits (or Aggies operating under the very mistaken belief that they’ll take the ‘easy’ version with us), I’ve had a lot of conversations with them over the past seven years. And the two things that most of them want out of their time in College Station is 1) the “Aggie experience” – the Game Days, the bonfires, Ring Day, the Corp, etc., and 2) the Aggie Ring (i.e. the alumni network) and the doors that having one opens for you for the rest of your life. I’ve not once had an undergrad tell me that they picked A&M because of the academic opportunities.

    So in all of these discussions, its important to differentiate between schools where #2 (the value of the alumni network) is part of the cost-benefit analysis and where it really is not. As long as people want to be Aggies and Longhorns and Badgers and Gators, and perceive that to have separate value from academics, people will still pay to be Seminoles or Spartans.

    4
  46. de stijl says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:

    That alumni connection thing always creeped me out.

    1. Classism
    2. Likely to be infested by pervs

    There are is a lot to like in mentorship arrangements.

    There is a lot to dislike about an alumni network.

    Not to bag on A&M too hard but it seems that the students self-select for the experience are kinda d-bags. That sounds harsh. It may be a thing I am not considering, but why wouldn’t you choose a school except on education / academic strength?

    You can get game day and tailgate traditions at any school. All different. All the same.

    I kinda forget that A&M has the Corps which attracts a type. Don’t get that at all. Not my thing.

  47. @Gromitt Gunn: It has been increasingly obvious to me the degree to which students pay for college for an experience beyond just instruction. The pandemic has made obvious that which was simply intellectual knowledge, as has been being a parent of two college students during the present moment.

    1
  48. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao:You’re doing the same computation system that the “Eat This, Don’t Eat That” guy does when he says “if you cut out your morning latte from Starbucks, you lose 47 pounds by the end of the year.” The computation method doesn’t actually work that way in real life there, either. 🙁

    2
  49. de stijl says:

    The bonfire and the ritualized chanting is super creepy.

    Sorry, Aggies, but it truly is.

    2
  50. wr says:

    @HarvardLaw92: Sorry to miss out on this conversation yesterday — taking a rare day away from the screen!

    Lectures and workshops via Zoom aren’t ideal, but you get used to them. And I can see a hybrid teaching method for large survey classes (in the humanities, anyway — I will not pretend to know anything about STEM education). The big classes tend to feature large lectures by the professor once or twice a week, followed by section meetings of ten or so students led by a TA. This could be easily done — the lectures could even be pre-recorded, and the sections are ideal for a Zoom conversation.

    1
  51. wr says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “And there is a discount if students are truly 100% online: they are not paying for dorms and meal plans and host of other auxiliary services (although they often do still pay fees associated with some campus services).”

    It’s the not paying part that turns out to be the problem. Dining services and dorm rooms are a huge moneymaker for universities — I was told that the University of California had already lost something like six billion dollars by early June.

    Which leads to absurdities like Yale’s current campaign to persuade students to come to campus, live in single-occupancy dorm rooms, have all their meals delivered to their rooms… and take all their classes on line…

    1
  52. @wr:

    It’s the not paying part that turns out to be the problem. Dining services and dorm rooms are a huge moneymaker for universities — I was told that the University of California had already lost something like six billion dollars by early June.

    Trust me–I am fully aware. Universities rely very heavily on these auxiliary services and that number for the UC system would not surprise me.

    I was responding to some specific point about paying or dorms/meal plans v. tuition.

  53. wr says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “If I make reservations for a romantic dinner at a nice seafood restaurant, I’m not going to accept “fish & chips” in a to-go box.”

    This kind of thinking — Mu’s, not yours — makes me crazy. It’s the same as “how can you tell me to close down my business when that’s how I make money.”

    The people who are doing the telling — they get that. The people who are putting fish and chips in that to-go box — they get that. Everyone who says you have to limit your life in some terrible way — they know how hard it is for you, and their lives are sucking in pretty much exactly the same ways.

    No one’s doing this for fun. No one’s doing this because they’re trying to reorder society. They’re doing it because there is a pandemic sweeping through the country killing and seriously injuring people and for now the only way to stop it is to halt its spread. It is a once in a lifetime crisis and it requires us to change our behaviors. There’s no one to blame and no one out to get you. This is happening, and denying it or complaining about it won’t make life any better.

    1
  54. wr says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Sorry, wasn’t meaning to lecture you — just wanted to throw out that astonishing statistic, which was presented to me as a preamble to “and this is why salaries are going to be cut.”

  55. @wr: No worries. I was just agreeing with you, actually.

    @wr:

    No one’s doing this for fun. No one’s doing this because they’re trying to reorder society. They’re doing it because there is a pandemic sweeping through the country killing and seriously injuring people and for now the only way to stop it is to halt its spread. It is a once in a lifetime crisis and it requires us to change our behaviors. There’s no one to blame and no one out to get you. This is happening, and denying it or complaining about it won’t make life any better.

    Exactly. This is more or less what I was trying to tell Mu. Sure, we can have a discussion about tuition and the cost of higher education, but the realities of the moment mean that there aren’t easy discounts and whatnot to hand out. We are all dealing with an emergency here.