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Colleges face growing tuition criticism amid pandemic

CampusReform.org Editor-in-Chief Cabot Phillips joins Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers to discuss colleges facing concerns over COVID-19 cases as West Virginia University is the latest school to switch from in-person classes to remote learning.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Across the country, they are inviting students back to school and, frankly, are faced the students-- surprise, surprise-- partying. So for more on this, we're joined now by Cabot Phillips, CampusReform.org Editor-in-Chief.

So Cabot, I was very excited to have this conversation with you, because I was a little bit ticked off-- I'm not even a college student anymore-- but almost a little bit annoyed to see the news that universities are somewhat surprised that college students are doing what college students do, which is have parties, and now have to reverse course on reopening schools. So I mean, how much can universities reasonably expect college students not to gather in groups or have parties, or study groups, or whatever college students are doing these days?

CABOT PHILLIPS: Yeah, I think there's a middle ground here to be had, where it's certainly reasonable for the university to sit-- to tell students, hey, don't go to that frat house party with 400 people congregating without masks. And I think students should understand everyone's having to make sacrifices. So I think it's reasonable for students maybe to give up that element.

But by the same token, I think it's important for universities to understand that college isn't just about sitting in the class. It's not just about being in the library. It's about the interactions you have, the friends you make, the collaborative efforts you're having with your peers, and those are being curtailed right now by the university, leaving a lot of students wondering, why did I even come back?

Because we've seen universities really refusing to lower costs, as a whole. The majority of universities are charging the exact same tuition as last year, even though most of the facilities aren't open. So students are saying, what's in it for me? I'm not getting this effort.

We've even seen some schools up at Northeastern University, they actually just expelled 11 students who they found congregating in a hotel room off campus. 11 students, and that was enough for the university to expel them. None of those students are getting back any of the $36,000 down payment they put down for the year on tuition.

So we do see universities at the beginning of the semester now trying to make statements to tell students we're putting our foot down, you can't be getting away with this. But students are starting to push back, and there's a lot of resentment that we're hearing from students on campus. It's hard to underestimate just how resentful a lot of the students are towards their universities, because a lot of the students do feel misled right now about what they're getting versus what they paid for.

KRISTIN MYERS: OK, so to that point-- because I actually called it, it's a little bit harsh, I had said scam fairly flippantly recently when chatting with someone. But do you at all view this as some kind of almost a bait-and-switch? You tell students, OK, we're going to come back to school. To your point, not all the facilities are going to be open. But we're still going to charge you the same price. And then when you do what we are largely expecting you to do, which is gather in groups, and we now see an outbreak or a surge on our campus, we say, OK, we're actually going to keep all of your money and now we're going to switch back to the online classrooms, and it's your fault for that happening.

CABOT PHILLIPS: Yep. We've heard multiple students send us in tips saying, can someone help me? What's going on? I'm paying $40,000. They told me I'd be in the class. And now they're saying, well, actually, just one or two of your classes will be in person, and those will just be your classes of eight, and everything else, you're not going to have access to, but they're still on the hook for all that salary. I think bait-and-switch is perfectly fair.

And the universities are also trying to toe this line of making sure they're enforcing social distancing guidelines and CDC regulations, but also, I think, they're flirting with going a little bit overboard and going into the big brother territory. We've covered, at Campus Reform, how schools have implemented snitch lines, where they're encouraging students to report their peers that aren't wearing masks, which I'm sure you can understand the impact that might have on campus of not exactly conducive to an all-in-this-together mentality, kind of creating us versus them thing.

We've seen university sending campus police off campus, outside of their jurisdictions, into off-campus housing complexes to try and find their students are partying. The students feel like that's a violation of privacy. Other universities are requiring students to download apps that are tracking their location at all times to make sure that they aren't breaking social distancing guidelines. And so this is a fine line where everyone's trying to find the balance of being able to go back safely.

But the common refrain we've heard from students is you can do that without violating my privacy. And at the same time, the students feel as if look, I'm more likely to get killed driving to campus from spring break than I am by COVID at this point, so why are you making my life like I'm living in a prison cell? So I think that this is going to have lasting impacts. I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a decrease in enrollment this coming semester, as students realize what they're getting into if these lockdowns are still in place.

KRISTIN MYERS: I only have about 45 seconds here with you, Cabot, but I want to ask if you're hearing students say that they might get litigious, perhaps, start filing some lawsuits against universities?

CABOT PHILLIPS: Certainly, that's what we're expecting to see from Northeastern. We've spoken to some students on the ground, and we are expecting to see some lawsuits for the students that weren't able to get any of their tuition back. And the other impact from students that we've heard, which I wouldn't necessarily advise, but students have been candid and we're speaking to them, and they're saying, look, this doesn't exactly make me want to view my school in a partnership mentality as much as it wants-- makes them want to view them as someone that's against me, someone that's a big brother.

And also, there's the element where students say, I'm not as likely to actually go report if I'm feeling sick, because I see the punishment students get if they are breaking social distancing guidelines. I don't want to have any of that come down on me. Students are worried that if they do get sick, they could be punished, and they might not get their tuition back. So that creates an entire other problem where students aren't going and being honest when they do start to feel sick, which is much more likely to cause outbreaks.

And so I think when the universities implement these heavy-handed policies and they put in place ideas like this, they're actually kind of-- it's having an adverse impact, where it's not actually going to help keep the campus safer. And I think they're failing to see that right now. They're having a very short-sighted view of things.

But again, this is a very difficult situation. Don't want to throw all schools under the bus. We're all-- we're all new here. But I think students have every right to be upset about the way that all this has been rolled out in the fall.