Robert Massa, an adjunct professor at USC, had a recent conversation with his neighbor that undoubtedly mirrors discussions unfolding in front yards, in living rooms and at kitchen tables across the country.

“His daughter is going to be a freshman in college,” Massa recalled, “and he asked me whether it’s worth it to pay full tuition for online learning.”

Massa, who has spent more than 40 years as a university executive, including a decade as the dean of enrollment at Johns Hopkins, offered a measured response to the issue that has engulfed higher education since the coronavirus pandemic began and campuses emptied in March.

“The decision of value is really an individual one,” Massa said. “From my perspective, there is value in remote learning, but I’m not the parent doling out the money.

“The conversion to online and making the campuses safe is astronomical,” he said. “The cost of instruction has gone up, and somebody has to pay for that.”

Most students aren’t in the classrooms this fall. They aren’t eating in the dining halls. They aren’t using university services. They’re living at home and watching lectures on Zoom — all while paying the same tuition charged for an in-person experience.

And many aren’t happy.

Emily Nguyen, a UC Berkeley freshman who is living at home in San Jose, stands on “the thin line of frustration as well as empathy.”

Nguyen said she recognizes there are rising costs for the University of California system — tuition and fees at Cal are $14,100 this year — but believes holding tuition steady is unfair.

“The entire experience is different,” she wrote in an email.

“If people knew exactly what they were paying for and light was shed to show how financial expenses truly benefited students, then I feel this would not be as much of an issue,” she said. “But alas, as things are right now, it feels extremely unfair.”

The uproar plays no favorites.

Universities from coast to coast, small and large, public and private, are in the crosshairs of frustrated students and parents.

The CSU and UC systems are defending themselves against lawsuits filed by students seeking refunds on fees paid for campus services during the spring semester — services that weren’t available once the universities sent everyone home. The website has dozens of petitions started by students requesting refunds for spring expenses or discounts on fall tuition.

Marissa Morgan created one that has about 2,000 signatures so far. Morgan is a freshman at UC Davis this fall, except she’s not at UC Davis this fall. She’s at home, in Southern California.

“It should not be the sole responsibility of student-paid tuition for universities to be prepared for cases such as this,” Morgan explained via email. “They are not for-profit universities.”

But they are not for-loss universities, either.

In the age of COVID-19, basic economics rule: Costs are soaring as universities spend millions on PPE, deep cleaning and the technology needed for online instruction, Massa said.

At the same time, revenues that pay for salaries and support services are plunging.

The decrease in the number of students on campus has disrupted revenue streams — dining and residence halls, for example — that depend on a vibrant campus community. The University of California system lost $1.8 billion from March through June alone, according to CalMatters.

Meanwhile, jobs are on the line. UC is the state’s third-largest employer, with about 200,000 faculty and staff. The university issued layoff notices to 200 food service workers earlier this summer, and some campuses are trying options such as reassignments or salary reductions to cut costs.

“The students are absolutely right,” said Dick Startz, a professor of economics at UC Santa Barbara. “For most purposes, the online education is not the same as in-person education. It’s like the difference between listening to a CD and going to a live show.

“But what about the university side? Expenses are up, and when they’re up, it’s hard to cut tuition,” Startz said. “Both sides have legitimate cases.”

The complicated financial calculation, Massa explained, includes two often overlooked components:

— The total cost of educating a single student, which includes salaries (faculty and staff), administrative expenses, institutional aid, utilities and building maintenance, is greater than the full cost of tuition for any given student.

According to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California, the UC and CSU systems “cannot cover all their costs with the revenue generated by tuition. In other words, students do not pay the full cost of enrollment and instruction.” The difference is covered by state subsidies “through General Fund allocations,” the PPIC explained.

— Many students don’t pay the full cost of tuition, thanks to support from endowments and the state and private sectors. And 56% of UC undergraduates pay no tuition at all.

“So you have (many students) paying less than full cost, and then the full cost is less than the actual cost,” Massa said. “Add in the expenses related to keeping it safe and the online learning, and the schools are spending more than ever.”

Cal, which began the fall semester Aug. 26, estimates the pandemic will generate a $340 million blow to the budget from March of 2020 through June of 2021.

Of that, about $200 million is rooted in the loss of revenue from support services like residence and dining, performing arts and athletics.

Meanwhile, the university expects to spend $65 million over the next year on COVID-19-related costs, including PPE, deep cleaning, testing and contact tracing.

Then there’s the $10 million in technology costs associated with the move to remote learning.

About half that total is earmarked for laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots for lower-income students. The rest, Cal said, includes “funds for more Zoom licensing, support for the development of online content and courses, fellowships to teach graduate students new remote instruction skills and visual advising.”

The situation at UCLA is no less dire.

While the school didn’t provide a breakdown of COVID-19 expenses, Chancellor Gene Block wrote earlier this month that budget challenges would “reverberate long after the pandemic ends.” The financial impact of COVID-19, he said, stands at $540 million.

Students will have to weigh present options against future goals when deciding whether remote instruction is worth the price of enrollment, Massa said.

“Assume that two years from now, or four years from now, we’re not having this conversation and students are back in the classroom and there’s a vaccine,” Massa said. “What you’re paying now are credits to the degree that you’re seeking from the university.”


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