University of Chicago students protest on April 24 Credit: Courtesy UChicago for Fair Tuition

College students are not stupid. So, back in mid-March, when it became clear that any campus could flame into a virus hot spot, and students across the country were sent home with instructions not to return from spring break, it didn’t take long for them to wonder why they should continue paying top dollar for a higher education experience that was playing out in their childhood bedrooms. After a few fascinating hours of online lectures, it occurred to some who’d already shelled out a full semester’s tuition that they might be entitled to a partial refund.

And at the University of Chicago, which was about to launch into a whole new quarter, some students started to think they shouldn’t have to pay the usual twenty grand.   

By the end of March an ad hoc group—UChicago for Fair Tuition—was campaigning for a 50 percent cut in tuition for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. When UCFT posted a tuition-cut petition that included a few other demands (like a long-term tuition freeze and budget transparency), it quickly attracted more than 1,800 student signatures.  

On April 13, the University of Chicago announced a one-year freeze on the cost of tuition, fees, and room and board—which UCFT claimed as a victory. But the administration stonewalled the student group on its request for negotiations, and UCFT raised the ante, calling for a spring quarter tuition strike. As an April 29 deadline for payment approached, UCFT said about 600 students were considering withholding tuition payments, and 200 had definitely not paid.

Tuition at the University of Chicago is nearly $58,000 annually (room, board, and fees add another $20,000 or so), which makes it one of the most expensive colleges in the country. But it also has one of the most generous financial support programs, bolstered by the announcement two years ago that it will guarantee free tuition for students whose family income is less than $125,000 annually, and will throw in free room, board, and fees for those with family incomes of less than $60,000.

In a May 7 e-mail to the university community, president Robert Zimmer estimated that COVID-19 will cost UChicago $220 million in this academic year, and warned that next year’s loss could be even worse. The university had already instituted spending cuts along with salary and hiring freezes, but, Zimmer added, “additional cost saving measures will be required in the coming months.” (A university spokesman said UChicago is considering whether to accept the $6 million it’s been offered in federal stimulus funds.)

UCFT, pointing to UChicago’s hefty endowment ($8.5 billion before the pandemic), argues that its refusal to provide financial relief to the student body in this time of crisis reveals the school’s true priorities. But this week—when push came to shove—the group was backing down. “The strike is going to end soon,” UCFT organizer Luis Rubio said Sunday, “because if we continue, the university is able to put holds on our accounts, which means that we wouldn’t be able to register for classes.”

“We don’t want to do that. We want to prioritize students every step of the way,” Rubio said. “So we’re just looking to negotiate with the university, to discuss with them what options there are, and how they can help us.” 

Similar petitions at Northwestern and UIC drew about 5,000 and 8,500 signatures respectively, and class-action lawsuits arguing breach of contract in the substitution of online classes for the campus experience have now been filed against dozens of colleges and universities across the country. That’s not a route that UCFT as an organization is pursuing, however. “Although we believe that the issue of not getting what we’re paying for is a problem,” Rubio says, UCFT is more concerned about “a larger systemic problem of insane tuition prices that hurt marginalized, international, low-income, and first-generation students.” 

Lawsuits against schools like Indiana University and Purdue claim that, in effect, students have paid for a car, but are getting a bicycle. This is the education-as-a-commodity argument that academics have historically rejected, and it’s led some schools to the treacherously in-kind reply that, well, students are still getting the credits they signed up for.

But there might be another defense: Association of American Colleges and Universities president Lynn Pasquerella told me this week that “in this case there was a sense of urgency with respect to protecting the health and safety of students. It was a time of necessity; [the colleges] were forced to move their classes online.”

So I think students will have a much less likely chance of winning those suits, given that colleges and universities had to pivot so quickly, than they might if institutions decide to maintain remote learning and charge the same tuition in the fall.”

Is that a possibility?  

“Every president I know of is looking at three scenarios for fall: face-to-face, a hybrid model, and completely online,” Pasquerella said. But she’s not expecting a uniform return to the full on-campus experience: “Under these circumstances, it would be very complicated to protect the safety of students.”  v