University students are questioning decisions by some universities to keep tuition the same or even raise it for the upcoming academic year despite most classes being online and minimized access to on-campus facilities and services.

With the start of fall classes just a few weeks away, college students are making their voices heard through petitions aimed at university officials and discussions on social media. However, universities faced with the twin challenges of protecting students’ health and shoring up budget shortfalls are standing by their financial decisions for the semester.

Some students feel they are not getting the full benefit of their college experience with remote classes.

“Remote learning, I think, is a diluted form of education,” Trinity University accounting graduate student Jenna Flexner said. “It’s impossible for students to connect with professors or with other students in a way that’s comparable to in-person learning. Ultimately, that experience that we’re paying for, whether that’s studying by friends, attending office hours, networking, playing sports, or just utilizing the campus amenities, I think that those are really lost without an in-person education.”

Trinity, which increases its tuition each academic year based on a recommendation proposed to the Board of Trustees, lists the undergraduate tuition and fees for the 2020-21 academic year at $46,456 – 4 percent more than the previous year. But the university plans to “de-densify” its campus, including significantly reducing campus living spaces and offering many classes remotely. 

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Junior history major Lauren Rains created a petition calling for Trinity to reduce tuition for students in late June, asking her peers to share and sign the petition if they care “to have a tuition price that fits the quality of education we are receiving,” according to the petition.

“There have been a few decisions made by Trinity regarding COVID or things happening during this time – statements that they’re making that already made us agitated to begin with,” Rains said. “This was, for me at least, the last pillar that fell down for me to where I just felt like I needed to say something.”

Eric Maloof, the university’s vice president for enrollment management, stated that the decision to increase tuition fees for 2020-21 was made prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Although students are not receiving a direct cut to their tuition price, they will continue benefiting from the institution’s financial aid program estimated at $70 million, he said. 

“If we were to roll [the increase] back or reduce, that would greatly inhibit our ability to continue our current financial aid program in its current form, which targets the most academically capable students around the country and world regardless of their socioeconomic background,” Maloof said.

After presenting the petition to university administration, Rains met with Maloof to discuss the concern that Rains and upwards of 700 other signees shared.

“I obviously don’t agree with every little thing that is going on, but he did show me complications of everything in regards to reduction, and all of that. … They’ve been letting me have a dialogue with them, and that’s something I appreciate,” Rains said.

Remy Levy, a senior political science and English major at St. Mary’s University, created a survey for her classmates to fill out with their thoughts on increases in on-campus housing costs that ranged from $60 to $85.

“Seeing the general frustration and distrust in our administration, I figured that I should put everything together in a way that I could present to this administration that wasn’t just, ‘Here’s a couple screenshots with some tweets for people who are upset,’” Levy said.

Tuition also increased 4.9 percent from the 2019-20 school year.

“Fact of the matter is, you’re not getting the same education over Zoom as you are in person. It’s just not translatable enough,” Levy said. “And so to me, it’s ridiculous that I’m having to not only pay the same but more than for less. It does not sit well with me.” 

Since its launch on July 22, the survey has received over 200 responses. Levy hopes to continue communicating her survey data with campus administration, working towards a deeper conversation on addressing students’ concerns. 

The university announced a budget reduction of at least $10 million in May, laying off 24 employees and cutting pay for employees making $52,500 or more. Thomas Mengler, president of the university, also planned to take a 15 percent cut and donate 10 percent of his salary for scholarship aid to students receiving Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

After the University of Texas at San Antonio sent an email to its students on July 28 with an update about fee reductions for the fall, student Megan Rodriguez, publicized an open letter arguing that the institution’s accommodations to its students during the pandemic were insufficient.

“I urge current administration of [UTSA], the Student Affairs Department, and the Student Government Association who also monetize off of the student body to reconsider and push for the additional fees we are currently being charged with that I discussed today be waived for the longevity of the university as an institution,” the letter states.

The university plans to keep its tuition rates in place for personnel expenses, the infrastructure costs of technology and its instruction, and the funding of student scholarships. Adjustments made to fall 2020 semester fees include waiving international education and transportation fees. Other mandatory fees such as for the student union, campus recreation, and athletics will remain unchanged.

Petitions, surveys, and letters are only a select few ways students are vocalizing their sentiments about where their money will be going for the fall semester as they prepare for a collective online learning environment and limited access to what makes a college experience complete.

Rains expressed these efforts as a means of creating a dialogue between students and administration for the benefit of the university’s future.

“I do enjoy [Trinity],” Rains said. “Just because students put out petitions or have concerns with the university, doesn’t mean that they just hate it. They’re doing this because they care about it, and they want to see it do better.”

Samantha Ruvalcaba

Samantha Ruvalcaba

Samantha Ruvalcaba, who grew up in San Antonio, is a junior at St. Mary's University studying international and global studies with a minor in communications.