College students continue to sue for tuition refunds and petition for discounts as colleges struggle to enroll students and reopen campuses.

The Impact of COVID-19 on College Tuition


  • As the U.S. economy falters, students and families struggle to pay for higher education.
  • Colleges are losing revenue from defunct campus services and falling enrollment numbers.
  • Some colleges are discounting tuition for online edu, but many say they can't charge less.

COVID-19 has forced big questions about higher education — including how much it's worth. With higher education continuing primarily online this fall, some colleges are offering discounts. Most colleges, however, are holding tuition steady or even raising their rates.

Shortly after college classes moved to emergency online delivery last spring, students and families began pushing back against paying full-priced tuition. Students across the country signed petitions and brought over 100 class-action lawsuits against their schools.

“The fundamental questions presented by these lawsuits are: (1) what did students pay for and on what terms; [and] (2) have they received something quantifiably less than that?”

Many students and families don't want to pay on-campus prices for online education. They argue that it takes the full college experience — in-person discussion, hands-on labs, the collegiate environment — to rationalize the steep tuition at residential-four year colleges.

As of July, more than 93% of students thought they should get a discount for an online fall term. Some colleges — many of them top-tier private institutions — are decreasing rates to meet these expectations. But depleted state budget funds mean that many more schools plan on charging full tuition or going forward with scheduled tuition increases.

Students Demand Lower Tuition for Online Education

Students nationwide are petitioning their colleges to lower tuition in response to COVID-19. Some say it just makes sense to give students a break in this challenging climate. Most point to the experiential differences between in-person and online learning.

One student petition to lower tuition at Michigan State University says that the online format fails to deliver the same quality of education received on MSU's campus. Take out the teacher supervision, peer motivation, and networking opportunities commonly found on campus and you change the perceived value of a college education.

College leaders insist that with the same professors and curricula, remote learning is worth the full cost. Schools are continuing to educate students. But that rationale doesn't address the fact that students have long struggled to pay for college.

“On average students perform worse in online classes. … This means that this fall Michigan State University is providing a significantly worse value proposition to its students and demanding that they all pay full price.”

The ongoing college affordability crisis has simply hit a new inflection point. A recent survey found that the pandemic jeopardized 56% of students' ability to afford tuition.

Despite widespread financial need among students and thousands of petition signatures, most school spokespeople say they can't afford to lower tuition. The proposed class-action lawsuits are still in their early stages, but legal experts say that tuition rebates are unlikely.

Colleges are moving to protect themselves from further litigation due to COVID-19. Some colleges provided dining and housing rebates for the spring term. This year, colleges are inserting clauses that state if campuses need to be vacated again, students will not be entitled to these refunds.

Some Colleges Freeze or Discount Tuition Rates

College tuition inches up every year in the U.S., as do extra fees for campus services. Since raising rates is the norm, some colleges are simply freezing tuition rather than offering a discount. Rutgers University and William & Mary are among the growing number of schools that have rolled back planned tuition increases for the 2020-21 school year.

Others are biting the bullet and offering substantial tuition discounts. Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University are among the handful of colleges offering a 10% discount this year. Thomas University in Georgia will cut tuition by 30%. Meanwhile, Southern New Hampshire University — one of the first residential colleges to majorly invest in online education — has pledged full, one-year Innovation Scholarships to all incoming first-year students.

Private colleges with endowments in the billions are in the best position to lower rates. However, most of these schools — citing lost revenue and increased expenses — are only willing to reduce housing and student activity fees while holding firm on tuition.

Many Colleges Increase Tuition for 2020-21

Between shrinking state budgets, smaller enrollment numbers, and a reduction in money-making campus services, many colleges say they must go forward with plans to raise tuition.

Reopening this fall would add 10% to a college’s regular operating expenses.

Colleges must also pay to develop new online curricula and safety protocols, like installing plexiglass and equipping campus health centers to test for COVID-19. A survey by the American Council on Education estimated that reopening this fall would add 10% to a college's regular operating expenses. Some colleges are passing these COVID-19-related expenses on to students by way of new fees.

Additionally, loss of state revenue during the shutdown has starved state budgets, meaning colleges will rely even more heavily on tuition income this year. Unfortunately, many families in the U.S. are in no position to pay for these increased costs. Financial hardship and health concerns caused by COVID-19 have forced millions of students to rethink their college plans.


Feature Image: Sean Rayford / Stringer / Getty Images News / Getty Images