By Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scientist, Educational Policy Institute
Over 25 lawsuits are currently being levied against universities by various student groups (and their legal representation) in demand of tuition and fee refunds due to COVID-19 closures. The argument is that students are paying a standard fee for online classes that are not of the same quality as those provided in person. In Canada, several universities have recently announced that they will not reduce tuition and fee charges to students this fall for online learning. These institutions include the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, and McGill University, arguably Canada’s top three institutions which are also ranked in the top 50 in the world.
The question is posed: do institutions have a responsibility to reduce their pricing due to COVID-19-related circumstances? The answer depends in part on perspective, but at the heart of the issue is whether online education is inferior or largely different than that on physical campuses. To make the students’ case, there has to be evidence that the courses provided are of lesser quality, potentially impacting the quality of their degree program.
We need to understand what determines “quality” in a course. The content, delivery (pedagogy), and assessment of each course must be factored into this measure. The ‘x’ factor in this issue is the worthiness of face-to-face contact rather than asynchronous or even synchronous contact via web-based technologies, with the idea that the experience on campus is a major part of the degree program. Certainly, it can be argued that the networking—the contact with peers, professors, and staff—enriches the higher education experience. But does that increase the quality of the education, or simply the quality of the experience? The two are not necessarily the same.
Anecdotally, many of us who have taught both face-to-face and asynchronous courses understand the value added (and lost) of each format. For myself, I taught seven years in middle school and several years as an adjunct faculty member at two universities. I have had the opportunity to teach courses in both modes at the postsecondary level. My personal conclusion is that the quality of the course comes down to the pedagogy and ability of the instructor to fully utilize the content and technology to create a quality learning opportunity for students. In fact, I would go as far to say that many of my students were more engaged online than they would be in a classroom. Of course, this depends on many variables and factors. But the argument that just because a course is conducted face-to-face does not necessarily enhance quality. This argument is akin to the suggestion that small class sizes increase the quality of classes, which has been largely discounted in the research literature because quality teaching trumps class size every time. Good teaching and learning exists online and in person, as does poor teaching and learning.
The challenge is that an institution can’t effectively bring the entire campus experience to bear online. There are no mixers, fraternity/sorority events, no football or basketball games, no concerts or comedians, no campus clubs or campus-based philanthropy. There is only the work. There can be formal and informal contact online, but the college ‘experience’ will only happen when things get back to normal (and they will get back to normal).
But the quality of learning online can arguably be kept at the same level, or at least a respectable and suitable level, with adequate training of instructional faculty and staff. If these individuals are simply pushed out with a zoom account, the chance of success is significantly muted, even though that’s basically what we do with in-person teaching.
Beyond the lawsuits, there is publish pressure to reduce the tuition and fee charges to students. However, at least in theory, the institution is still providing a quality educational experience‚ not a personal experience—to students, which is costly to do. Yes, the institution can and should reduce or eliminate some of the fees that accompany tuition, like athletic fees, for instance. Other fees, such as library fees, are still in place as students will have access to important online library resources. Other campus fees that cover orientation programs, enhancement programs, first-year experience, and other services are still important and will be provided virtually. They should be charged.
As for the tuition itself, the creation and production of online courses is an expensive proposition. I found that teaching online was more work than teaching in a classroom. There is some wiggle room in a traditional classroom in terms of your use of time. Online has very little wiggle. Everything has to be closely planned, usually from the first day. It takes more prep time online than in person, at least in my experience. And there is a cost to technology just as their are physical plant costs on campus.
My sense is that the lawsuits will have limited success due to some of the arguments above. The plaintiffs have the burden of illustrating the injustices by institutions. They may have some luck in reducing fees for certain conditions as discussed above, but it seems a heavy pull to suggest that the full tuition and some fees are unjust, and that is the argument of some of the top universities. The only way I foresee a reduction in fees, at least for a majority of institutions, is with Congressional support through a special funding bill. Then it becomes the question of whether they simply rescue the states and public institutions or also the pricier private institutions.
Fast forward 10 years into the future. The undergraduate experience will be a recent memory for current and matriculating students. For successful students, their wall will be adorned with a framed, parchment diploma certifying that they have completed a degree of choice at their institution of choice. It will not say which classes were taken online and which were in person. And no one will ask that question. To be fair, there is no diploma that says anything about the quality of learning that occurred during the degree. Diplomas do not stipulate how good every instructor was or whether the assessment of knowledge was fair or adequate. Those issues are only imputed from the face value or reputation of the institution itself. And that’s all.
The COVID-19 experience is something that hopefully will not be experienced again by our students or their children. The last major impact of this level was 102 years ago, so let’s hope that it will be another century or longer before we have to go to the lengths that the country and world are going to in order to keep people safe. But even in a few years, the situation of colleges and students will be seen as a tiny blip in this epoch, not forgotten but also not of consequence. It happened. We all moved on.