By Greg Moses
If all values are system values, what do we make of trending lawsuits filed by students against their college campuses? Is it something like the demand of an air traveler who gets downgraded from first class to coach? The analogy seems to have merit. At least it reminds us of flying.
Campuses have about five categories of bills they send to students: tuition, student activity fees, parking, meal plans, and housing. Tuition goes to the academic budget. Student activity fees go into the infrastructure of extracurricular life, student organizations, counseling, libraries, health services, etc. In public debate, the term tuition often collapses all five categories into one.
On the more obvious side, meal plans and housing should be refunded if students are ordered to leave campus. But this means that funding for food service workers and housekeeping staff suddenly goes to zero. Bundled with any refund of this type–however obvious–will be a question of layoffs.
Parking also seems like an obvious refundable claim. But again, parking services are self funded through fees, and any refund is going to delete money that was budgeted for payroll.
Student activity fees get complicated, but the general theme is applicable. Wherever a campus is collecting fees, they are funding staff workers, and wherever fees are refunded, budgets for salaries begin to disappear.
Activity fees are complicated, because many services remain open to students, particularly counseling and emergency services, even if staff are working at a distance.
Which brings us to the difficult question of tuition itself, the money paid for academic, um, tuition. Students are correct to argue that online education is not the full experience of in-person education. For some fields of study, the difference can be a wide one. Drama, fine art, chemistry lab, etc., involve experiences that may be impossible to simulate online.
Students complain on the internet that moving their math classes online was especially difficult, which is an interesting thing to think about. Here we see the value of real-time personal attention to student questions and posture. The teacher can see everyone slumping down and make adjustments on the spot. Eye contact, unmediated by Zoom, is a wonderful teaching tool, and we can thank the pandemic for the crash course in the embodiment of it all. Teaching math is a deeply embodied transaction. Is that why my high school math teachers were coaches, too?
Literature was also mentioned by students on the internet. They missed the spontaneous discussion of the assigned materials, even if they were perfectly suitable for online delivery. Stanley Fish once asked, “is there a text in this class?” It all sounded so postmodern at the time, but here comes the pandemic, and we more plainly see how the text may be a kind of occasion for higher education, but never the education itself. There is a good reason why we continued to hold classes for several centuries, long after the printing press made it possible for everyone to read the books on their own.
As students were abruptly shifted from classroom to laptop, the feel of shock was widely confirmed. It was like being downgraded from first class.
However, we should not let the structure of our rant obscure the value of online education for those who need it most. Think of the soldier overseas, the working mother of three, or the 19-year-old who already has classes on campus plus a job as night clerk at your local hotel. Or perhaps the unemployed worker who wants an educational upgrade right away. Students such as these have competing pressures to consider, and online education is their preferred vehicle.
Two questions are important to ask about the difference between online and in-person instruction. Is there any difference in delivery cost? Did your online literature class leave your professor behind when it moved from class to laptop? Did the academic sector of campus find itself doing less work? Were teachers fired on the spot so that online classes could be lumped together into even more mind-numbing aggregations of distance packages? If the cost of delivering semester credits remained the same, how is it fair to demand refunds of tuition–when tuition is defined as the academic portion of the bill?
The second question is, what choice did the schools have? There are several related questions: If the pandemic made the move to online education necessary, and if online instruction involved the same payroll, and if other students were receiving online instruction by choice prior to the pandemic, just how much money do we think the school should pay back? Should the schools have simply refunded tuition to all classroom enrolled students and stopped trying to help them complete their semester credits?
And if schools have to re-budget their credit-delivery tuition to a lower amount, how do you expect them to make up the difference? Larger class sizes? Fewer instructors? Surely you are not expecting across-the-board cuts to administrative salaries? Do you really think that’s how things work?
At any rate, I think students will likely benefit from the recent right-wing shift in our national courts. There was already a culture war on liberal sentiment, the liberal arts, and liberal education prior to the pandemic. Lawsuits that demand refunds for the academic emergency seem to play into a picture of colleges as elite liberal leeches who probably deserve a whipping of some kind.
Recalling our thesis of system values, the student lawsuits also represent a dialectical moment when higher education in America is viewed increasingly as the student’s problem to finance. The state has been shaving its share of commitment for many decades now–at least since Reaganomics–transforming a system of public finance into a system of student debt, a.k.a neoliberalismo. In this social moment, student lawsuits are social expressions of pushback against this system of values, where Alma Mater, or nurturing mother, is dragged into court for a sad family feud.
Meanwhile, all the student energy directed against local campus administrations has had the effect of deflecting pressure from the national stage just as several trillions of dollars have been allocated for COVID-19 relief. And according to the usual calendar of campus politics, the game is over. Once finals are done and grades are in for the Spring, college student activism usually goes into hibernation for at least several months.
We have seen no evidence that widespread student discontent was ever effectively delivered to the doors of Congress in the form of an appeal for direct federal relief. This may be a failure of media coverage or research on our part. Instead, we have seen Congress allocate modest relief funds for college students and campuses. In an election year, Congress would, in theory, be most susceptible to students organized to advocate and vote. But the pressure was never brought to bear at the Congressional level, where the real money is.
Forbes reporter Adam S. Minsky, Esq., reports that progressive Democrats wanted to award $30,000 in student loan relief across the board. As the final package of the HEROES Act was being negotiated prior to the House vote of May 15, the dollar amount of student loan relief was cut to $10,000, and the scope of relief was restricted to borrowers who demonstrated some defined forms of hardship.
There is money in the House-passed HEROES Act that can flow to public campuses, but the amounts are less than what organized higher ed interests groups had asked for. And this is another sign that the higher education community was unable to mount much of an organized voice at the national level during March, April, or May, preoccupied as they were with the day-to-day work of getting semester credits completed, slashing budgets for the next academic year, and generally contemplating the lifeboat ethics of who gets shoved off.
Meanwhile, back in the nation’s capital, the majority leader of the Senate and the President of the United States both promise that none of this modest HEROES money, in support of the public sector or higher ed, is going to see the light of day. If students are able to claw back funds through lawsuits, and if the HEROES Act dies in the Senate, the legacy of 2020 will be what?
The American tragedy here is that Mencius was correct. The personality of the ruler flows down through the kingdom. We have become a flock of bickering grackles. Above us, we fail to notice if that sky remains devoid of any farsighted, graceful eagle. If all values are system values, what system will we reach for after final grades are in?
Greg Moses is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and a member of the Texas Civil Rights Collective.
2 replies on “Are We Up Against the Wall Yet, Alma Mater?”
Read this on DV.
Can’t see the POV regarding NOT refunding fees including food and accommodation. Too bad if the universities got caught out; everyone else did as well too. Airlines, restaurants, hotels you name it. Is there some golden rule protecting all the workers at a university from janitors to food preparers to lecturers to grand poobah full professors and administrators from feeling any pain? But everyone else has to? If these diploma factories already charging too mich, think some online course is a substitute for real classes and keeping the money already paid, itself likely borrowed by students, because, uh well, that’s just the way it is so get lost, I’d say their perspective is out-to-lunch.
My niece is in this position. Screwed. Lab and field work was an intrinsic part of her program. She figures she just might as well call it quits completely. The money left for non-delivery of services this academic year is a complete write-off, while the university employees still get to eat and pontificate. Her career of paying for her education by being a high end restaurant waitress is gone as well – she’s in her late twenties so hardly some teen nitwit. So she’s lucky she’s got a family who can afford to feed and house her while she herself feels completely useless and depressed. Had to pay to fly back across country home as well, which wasn’t in the budget, and no it wasn’t $99. All A’s at Christmas too.
Bugger the institutions and their assumed privileges! What about the people? Academic administrations need to get down to some real work to figure out the future of their service rather than stealing their customers’ money today and calling it good, while proffering ersatz product in return. It should be all hands on deck. To me, it’s simply disgraceful the way they are behaving, and not in good faith.
Hi Bill: It’s great to have a reader from Dissident Voice. We very much appreciate their editorial support.
On the matter of refunding room and board, the article says this is the obvious case. “On the more obvious side, meal plans and housing should be refunded.” So I’m not sure where the POV is presented “regarding NOT refunding fees including food and accommodations.”
You write:”Too bad if the universities got caught out; everyone else did as well too. Airlines, restaurants, hotels you name it. Is there some golden rule protecting all the workers at a university from janitors to food preparers to lecturers to grand poobah full professors and administrators from feeling any pain? But everyone else has to?”
Again, the article says that some refunds will put jobs at risk. I don’t see where the article argues that on the basis of job loss, refunds should not be given.
And please notice that there has been general political will to address the loss of jobs at airlines, restaurants, and hotels. We agree that all job losses should be important to a comprehensive federal policy. But we do not see why job losses on college campuses are treated with comparative indifference.
“If these diploma factories already charging too much, think some online course is a substitute for real classes and keeping the money already paid, itself likely borrowed by students, because, uh well, that’s just the way it is so get lost, I’d say their perspective is out-to-lunch.”
The article gives reasons for why the move to online instruction may qualify as a refundable event. Some classes cannot be easily converted to online technology. And even those classes which can be converted, the experience is not the same as in-person education. So we gave reasons in support of refunds.
On the other hand, the article gives reasons for why it might be right for schools to not refund tuition money. The schools had no choice in the matter. If semester credits were to be completed in a timely way, they had to be completed online. In many cases, similar courses were already being completed online. And it’s not obvious how the school saved any money by moving everything online.
The article does not take a one-sided view. Instead, the article tries to show that any one-sided view has countervailing considerations. If the prevailing view today is that tuition should be simply reduced or refunded, the article shows why there may be another way to look at things.
You write, “My niece is in this position. Screwed. Lab and field work was an intrinsic part of her program. She figures she just might as well call it quits completely. The money left for non-delivery of services this academic year is a complete write-off, while the university employees still get to eat and pontificate.”
As the article argues, there are some courses that do not convert to online credit. And if no workable solution was found to satisfy the credit, then yes, the money should be refunded. Where no semester credits were able to be satisfied, the institution cannot charge for nothing given.
Of course, this will put the institution in a hole, but that’s another issue, that we’ll address later.
You write, “Her career of paying for her education by being a high end restaurant waitress is gone as well – she’s in her late twenties so hardly some teen nitwit. So she’s lucky she’s got a family who can afford to feed and house her while she herself feels completely useless and depressed. Had to pay to fly back across country home as well, which wasn’t in the budget, and no it wasn’t $99. All A’s at Christmas too.”
Please take a look at our complete lineup of writing here at the Texas Civil Rights Review, because we have been chiefly motivated by this story, which is the neglected story of the COVID-19 pandemic, and which we feel like we have been addressing nearly alone.
We are trying to nurture a national community of support for students like your niece. There are millions of students like your niece. We think too little is being done to help students like your niece. Please share our concern and best wishes for her. She is bright, hard working, and surrounded by loving support. We support her struggle as we can — by advocating for a national policy of well-funded student relief, including emergency funding and student loan relief.
You write, “Bugger the institutions and their assumed privileges!” Well, I have to say that you have answered the question posed in the title. Yes, Alma Mater, we are up against the wall.
“What about the people?” you ask. We argue that the people include workers on campus. The people include teachers. The people include campus staff and administrations who carry out the campus life that students so highly value when they are on campus. Whoever the people are, let’s include all the people.
You assert: “Academic administrations need to get down to some real work to figure out the future of their service rather than stealing their customers’ money today and calling it good, while proffering ersatz product in return.”
Stealing and ersatz are both loaded words. We have given reasons for why the words stealing and ersatz may not be the best word to use here. We can see that you are unpersuaded at this time.
You say, “It should be all hands on deck. To me, it’s simply disgraceful the way they are behaving, and not in good faith.”
Agreed, “It should be all hands on deck.” But again, our focus here is on higher education as a social good, therefore when we call for all hands, we mean nationally, on campus and off campus. Everyone should include higher education in their description of the national emergency that we are facing.
Finally, you conclude: “To me, it’s simply disgraceful the way they are behaving, and not in good faith.”
I’m not sure who “they” are in this sentence. Perhaps you are referring to a specific set of actions by a specific college administration. I do not doubt that there is some bad faith out there. However, once again, I think it is too sweeping a claim.
The general structure of our analysis is this: we can all gang up on each and every college administration across the country, but if that’s all we do, we will miss the point. They did not cause the pandemic. Add them all up, and they do not have the resources necessary to address the pandemic.
Across the country, there is widespread agreement that the federal government is the appropriate authority to address these issues at scale. We are doing our part here at The Texas Civil Rights Review to make the case that any federal plan should include ample supports for higher ed, both for its campuses and its students. Like the future depends upon it.