USC must gives students a partial tuition refund

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For many, paying for college may mean pulling together several different resources — scholarships, grants, student-worker jobs and loans can make a university’s large price tag much more affordable. But what happens to the price tag when the item arrives extremely different than advertised?

Obviously, no one anticipated a semester cut short. No one predicted that, by mid-March, students across the world would be attending classes in their own homes and in pajamas. Educational institutions everywhere are innovating on the fly, and professors are trying to somewhat maintain the sense of structure found in a traditional classroom setting. 

Given the state of the semester, students should be given a partial tuition refund for Spring 2020. While professors and University administration have gone to great lengths to adapt course curriculums to an online format and learn how to navigate Zoom, the caliber of education that students are receiving is evidently not the same. 

It seems logical that students would be partially reimbursed for on-campus housing and meal plans going to waste, but the same should hold true for University tuition. USC is a top-ranked learning institution and research facility, and the high cost of tuition is partially caused by the level of experiential learning and on-campus resources students have access to. Much of what tuition money goes toward is no longer accessible, like the University’s 23 libraries, laboratories or lighting stages, since the transition to remote learning. 

Closed classrooms, abandoned dorms and shuttered dining halls are only a facet of the college experience that students are missing from home. The costly biannual invoice from USC guarantees students smaller class sizes, unique course offerings and a more personalized education than students would receive at a large public university, not to mention an exclusive membership to the Trojan Family. 

Endowments, donors and generous financial aid make it possible for students of all backgrounds to attend USC. While the playing field is somewhat leveled when students are at school — free WiFi is available all around campus, laptops are available to rent and resources like the Trojan Food Pantry and Trojan Shelter offer aid to food and housing insecure students — this is not always the case when students are required to learn from home. 

Not everyone has access to the same resources, a quiet space to learn, a stable internet connection or even all of their textbooks. Although the University has made accommodations by changing the grading policy, some students may still be burdened by the loss of resources available at the University. 

While students and educators alike are making do with what they have, Zoom office hours will never be the same as interacting face-to-face with a professor, and there’s simply no virtual substitute for conducting undergraduate research in a lab on campus. Free events such as Visions and Voices and Speaker Series are postponed or canceled, and for the few events that have been moved online, glitchy audio and technical difficulties will never equate to sitting in Bovard Auditorium and listening to a presentation live.

As the U.S. economy continues to spiral downward and the unemployment rate surges in this new alternate reality, there’s no question that businesses everywhere are struggling, and even large not-for-profit research universities like USC are not immune. In a university-wide email from Provost Charles Zukoski sent earlier this month, the school’s higher administration vaguely referenced potential coronavirus-related financial trouble for the University, noting that there were “slowdowns in philanthropy and declines in endowment value” and “revenue losses from … donor receivables.” 

While the email focused more on steps that the University would be taking to save money, such as pausing hiring and nonessential travel expenses, and didn’t directly address the topic of student refunds for tuition, the overall tone in terms of financial loss was not optimistic. Many other schools are in the same boat and have chosen not to provide tuition discounts or refunds. Stanford, which sent students home at the end of the winter quarter, will not be pro-rating the end of the quarter and will be charging full price for the spring quarter, which is being operated entirely remotely. 

While frustrating and unfair, there is some legitimacy to the decision — schools can’t make up revenue lost on university housing or meal plans midway through the semester, and as Seton Hall professor Robert Kelchen noted, public and private universities “don’t have the kind of operating margin that lets them refund a couple of million dollars in the short term.” 

The entire country — and world, for that matter — is in a similar situation. Businesses, employers, employees and students are all dormant. Everyday life has stopped, and regardless of how the money is dispersed, as the world rights itself there will be a need for massive financial recovery. 

While the email sent by Zukoski was an attempt at transparency, students should expect more from USC. As unprecedented a situation as this is, USC has a responsibility to its students first. It claims to accomplish its mission of creating well-rounded contributors to society through a combination of “teaching, research, artistic creation, professional practice and selected forms of public service.” With the suspension of daily life and the introduction of remote instruction, obviously not all of this is possible. But if this is what students are paying for, then Zoom classes shouldn’t cost exactly the same as what a semester’s worth of hands-on interaction and experience would.  

Dealing with tens of thousands of individual students and their situations as well as those of all of the faculty members and employees of the University is far from straightforward or simple. The USC administration will inevitably be making a lot of tough decisions in the weeks and months to come. But so far, the University’s communication has been consistent and logical. Students are relying on administrators to be just as even-handed and understanding when it comes to their Spring 2020 tuition.