On Wednesday July 29 President Kuncl announced that the University of Redlands, despite previously planning to carefully reopen, will not be returning for in-person classes, housing, events, or activities, at least for the foreseeable future. There are many critiques one could offer about how the University has proceeded in light of COVID-19, but this decision doesn’t seem to call for one. Stopping a virus from spreading between students living a few feet from each other didn’t seem plausible, especially considering the COVID numbers in San Bernardino county. However, now that the campus will certainly be closed, there is another question that becomes salient: is it right for students to pay standard tuition for a fully online experience?
I mean not to downplay the value I place in my experiences at the U of R. In every way and more, Redlands has delivered on what I was promised in many personal notes from then-students and alumni. I’ve enjoyed small classroom experiences, brilliant professors, uniquely creative and engaging peers, a small campus community, and the opportunity to lead student organizations.
Yet the cost of college, as everyone reading this likely knows, has crossed the line separating expensive from absurd. For one year of the experiences aforementioned, an accepted student is floated a price tag of $52,150 before housing and a few small fees. As the University fairly points out, >90% of students receive some financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships. However, for every year that I’ve been here (I’m a senior) Redlands has raised the real cost of attendance, combined tuition and housing, by at least $2,000, while the financial aid plans remain stagnant. This is well beyond inflation, the average rate of which sat between 0.6% and 2.1% from 2017 to 2020.
A substantial minority, one would hope, of that $52,150 is attributable to activities and events that happen on campus. Consider everything students pay into that will not be happening, or happening in a limited capacity. The administration will save money on reduced upkeep of all buildings and grounds, the fitness complex, commons, and library, and having no in-person events or campus activities.
On top of that, the University is likely cutting costs by changing the way adjunct professors (62% of all professors) are paid from a salary to a wage (this is apparently required by California law), which will probably reduce professors’ net income if it has any meaningful change. The college is also outsourcing counseling services through partnering with Christian Counseling Services (CCS) to provide telehealth appointments to students. This is a time when, more than ever, students will need mental health support, though University counseling is limited to single-sessions and short-term arrangements. Some University staff have and will lose their jobs because the campus is closing, and others who normally work year-round were prevented from working parts of this summer, I’ve heard personally from University employees. This is another way that the administration’s costs are going down.
For a student to pay, let’s say, $30,000 a year (assuming generous financial aid), that sum must match the reality of an online education; it does not. For $30,000, one could have paid for more than 2 years of on-campus tuition at a public University of California. While there are many advantages Redlands has over public universities, which typically have hundreds of students in introductory classes, it should not be charging 2-3X (depending on grants) the price of a public university given recent developments. I expect my professors to prevail in making the material engaging via Zoom and online discussion boards, but there is simply not enough value in online classes to substantiate charging $30,000 or $52,150.
Just like any product, the reduction in the University’s services should be reflected at the consumer level. If students are receiving a lesser version of the product, their education, prices ought to reflect that.
Many families are also incurring the worst economic conditions since at least 2008. The University was already becoming unaffordable for many students before the pandemic. Now, I’ve seen friends leave Redlands whose families can no longer afford it in conjunction with the move to online learning.
The Redlands administration, led by President Kuncl, should continue to serve the interests of its primary constituency, the students. With that goal in mind, it is impossible to justify a base tuition of $52,150 while classes are taught online.