How Has the Pandemic Affected College Costs?

September 23, 2021

How Has the Pandemic Affected College Costs?

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Like many aspects of life, the cost of college changed in unexpected ways during the pandemic.

In some cases, tuition surged when classes went virtual in the spring of 2020. In other instances, pandemic college costs stayed steady or even declined. Overall, students paid more for tuition and fees in the 2020-2021 academic year.

According to a recent report by the College Board, full-time, in-state students at public four-year colleges paid an average of $10,560 in tuition and fees for 2020-2021. That's about 1% higher, or $120 more, than the previous academic year.

Students attending public four-year, out-of-state schools paid an average of $27,000 in 2020-2021. That's up nearly 1%, or $250 more. In addition, students at private nonprofit four-year colleges paid $37,650. That's 2.1%, or $770 higher than the previous school year. Students at public two-year colleges paid $70 more. Tuition at these schools rose nearly 2% to $3,770 in 2020-2021.

Tuition and Fees for Full-Time Students
Institution 2019-2020 2020-2021
Public four-year out-of-state institutions $26,770 $27,020
Public four-year in-state institutions $10,440 $10,560
Private nonprofit four-year institutions $36,880 $37,650
Public two-year institutions $3,700 $3,770

Source: College Board

Despite the uptick in tuition, the College Board said average public four-year, in-state tuition rates had the lowest increases in 30 years. This holds true for the average tuition rates at private nonprofit four-year schools too. The organization calculated the percent increases before adjusting for inflation.

With room and board plus tuition, higher education costs rose to an average of $12,850 for two-year colleges and $22,180 for in-state costs at public four-year colleges. Out-of-state tuition and room and board cost $38,640 at a public four-year school. Students at private nonprofit four-year colleges paid about $50,000.

Tuition, Fees, and Room and Board for Full-Time Students
Institution 2019-2020 2020-2021
Public four-year out-of-state institutions $38,280 $38,640
Public four-year in-state institutions $21,950 $22,180
Private nonprofit four-year institutions $49,870 $50,770
Public two-year institutions $12,690 $12,850

Source: College Board

Princeton Review's 2021 College Hopes & Worries survey polled more than 14,000 college applicants and parents. Students applying to college represented 79% of those polled. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said they applied "to colleges with lower sticker prices." This indicates that the pandemic made students and families more cost conscious about their college choice, the survey's authors said.

In addition, 63% of those surveyed estimated their college costs would exceed $75,000. Within that group, 37% thought college would cost more than $100,000. In addition, 18% of respondents said they had concerns about college affordability due to changes in their family's income.

How Colleges Responded Financially

College tuition often seems to travel on an upward trajectory. Pandemic college costs and health and job-related coronavirus concerns have increased affordability worries. But in response to pandemic-related declines in family income and a major shift to virtual-only learning, many colleges kept tuition rates flat. Major private and large public statewide university systems took this approach.

In some cases, conditions apply to these college tuition freezes. Some schools do not plan to offer tuition breaks for graduate students. At other schools, while tuition rates will not go up, tuition-related fees will.

"This academic year has definitely not been worth the whole amount and I'm still bitter — furious actually — that they raised (tuition) when basically everything is online."

– Eui Young Kim, student

Writing for Forbes, former University of Missouri president Michael Nietzel said "the tuition freezes are an acknowledgement of the continuing financial hardships faced by many students and their families due to the coronavirus pandemic."

Nietzel added that college tuition freezes also function to attract students. In the spring of 2021, when schools announced many of these measures, students and families were deciding where to go to college. "A tuition freeze may give a college the competitive advantage it needs to enroll more students," Nietzel said.

But not all colleges took that approach. More than a dozen elite schools raised tuition in 2020. Yet, they offered mostly or only virtual classes. The schools included Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Dartmouth. In response, college leaders say shifting to a mostly online education model requires spending money on training and technology resources.

Yale also saw $80 million less in clinical revenue at its medical school for the 2020 fiscal year.

"This academic year has definitely not been worth the whole amount and I'm still bitter — furious actually — that they raised (tuition) when basically everything is online," student Eui Young Kim told the Yale Daily News.

In August 2021, Yale's on-campus students should expect to pay $77,750 for tuition and room and board for the 2021-22 year — a 4% hike. The increase will not affect "more than half of undergraduates" because Yale "meets all demonstrated financial need," University Provost Scott Strobel told the student-run news outlet.

Strobel said in April 2021 that the pandemic and COVID-related expenses cost Yale $325 million in lost revenue. However, Yale said it refunded more than $20 million in room and board charges to students for the spring 2020 semester. The refunds reflect when "public health conditions led to the unexpected closure of campus residences," the university said in a statement.

Other schools took different measures to keep costs down. At Chapman University, a private school in California, the president voluntarily reduced his $720,000 annual salary by 20%. And last summer, the school temporarily suspended retirement plan contributions.

Pandemic Era College Costs

College costs and COVID-19 concerns are colliding as the Delta variant of the coronavirus surges in areas of the U.S. Now, many schools face a decision on if or how to reopen as the pandemic approaches the two year milestone. As students and teachers push for in-person classes and on-campus experiences, some colleges chose to hold the line on tuition.

Stanford, for example, plans to keep tuition flat at $55,473 for fall 2021. But, room and board charges will increase 3.5% for undergraduates. Together, tuition, fees, and room and board raise Stanford's total charges for undergraduates to $74,029 for 2021-22.

Citing the American Council on Education, the New York Times said reopening for the fall 2021 semester would add 10% to a school's operating expenses. Increased pandemic college costs would total $70 billion for America's approximately 5,000 higher education institutions.

The published cost of attendance at a four-year school rose 41% to $32,500 from 2007-2017. After adjusting for inflation, the change represents a 20% increase — 1.8% annually — over a decade, according to data analyzed by consulting firm McKinsey.

But this increase actually affects less than half of students. That's because 68% of students receive federal, state, local, or institution financial aid or scholarships. As a result, the net cost for these students in 2017 was $18,400. Adjusted for inflation, the increase in costs only equaled about 4% for these students from 2007-2017.

Student Pushback on Costs

How can one measure the value of a college degree? Looking at the cost of attendance versus the number of students who complete a four-year program provides one way to assess the value of higher education.

In that context, data show that students with a degree have greater earning potential. That potential, in turn, helps balance the high cost of college and the potential debt students take on to pay for higher education.

Education trains people to better analyze information and create solutions for complex problems, according to one explanation. Both of these skills benefit people who must manage chronic diseases or use resources only available through institutionalized healthcare systems.

Experts have also identified links between education, wealth, and health. As an example, people with more education tend to experience less anxiety and depression. They also have a lower likelihood of developing serious health issues like heart disease or diabetes.

Education trains people to better analyze information and create solutions for complex problems, according to one explanation. Both of these skills benefit people who must manage chronic diseases or use resources only available through institutionalized healthcare systems.

Yet, with education costs rising, paying more does not mean getting more of what you want.

Some students and parents do not like that while the educational content of virtual learning might be the same, the context in which it is delivered differs from an in-person experience. Some degree-seekers find online learning unappealing. For example, one student told the New York Times, "Who wants to pay $25,000 a year for glorified Skype?"

In another example of college affordability frustration, one student noted that California State University, East Bay charged $150 in recreation and athletic facility fees for the fall 2020 semester. But the pandemic led officials to close the recreation facilities.

Some students and families sued colleges. They sought reimbursement of some or all of the tuition and fees paid. Students and families paid for — and wanted — in-person learning and traditional on-campus experiences. But instead schools offered online learning only.

Students should not have to pay the same price for lesser quality instruction or be required to pay for on-campus services they aren’t able — or don’t want — to use.

– Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust

College affordability pressures have led some high schoolers to change their mind about attending college, according to a recent survey. The number of students likely to attend a four-year school dropped to 53%, down from 71% less than a year earlier.

However, "colleges reject the idea that refunds are in order because students are learning from the same professors who teach on campus and students are still earning credits toward their degrees."

The problem of paying more but getting less in higher education inspired Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust to introduce a Tuition Payer Bill of Rights. The Virginia-based nonprofit advocates for nationwide public policies that improve the quality of higher education while lowering its cost.

The organization says, "Students should not have to pay the same price for lesser quality instruction or be required to pay for on-campus services they aren’t able — or don’t want — to use."

Introduced in 2020, the six point statement includes the right to advertised benefits "and to be refunded for services not rendered." Additional points include the right to opt out of non-essential services and the right to financial transparency on how colleges spend their money. Another point advocates for the right to speak in public to college governing boards before they make decisions.

Nearly a dozen coalition partners support the idea. By speaking with one voice, the organization says, "We can send a unified message to higher ed policymakers urging them to provide basic consumer rights to students and families who foot the bill in higher education."

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