Pandemic puts pressure on universities; students dropping out

“I don’t believe I’m paying for a UC education…The tutoring center we pay for? Closed. The gym? Closed. The library? Closed.” Mauricio Valdez, a 2019 graduate of College of the Sequoias, described his current situation while attending UC Riverside (UCR).

With the pandemic forcing many universities to switch to remote learning, several students have left the dorms and returned to their hometowns, where they will likely end up paying for university services they cannot use.

College students across the nation have called for the reduction of tuition at universities, tuition freezes, and refunds on their room and board deposits.

But it’s not that simple. Universities have also taken a huge financial hit thanks to COVID-19, setting the stage for a potential paradigm shift in where students choose to attend for affordable higher education this fall.


The End of a High-Price University Education?

Some higher education institutions have taken the initiative to make tuition more equitable during the pandemic. Arizona State University is one of these institutions. President of ASU, Michael Crow, was interviewed on the Freakonomics podcast and discussed the creation of different pricing for remote learning.

But universities like ASU seem to be the exception, rather than the rule. Only a minority of universities have implemented a reduction in price via tuition freezes and discounts. The reality of the situation is that most universities will not be lowering their price tag this fall.

In fact, some institutions might even raise tuition prices to cover their losses. Universities are after all a business. They rely on income from room and board, fees, and sporting events to stay afloat, all of which have been drastically impacted by the pandemic.

According to John Warren, Director of News and Information at UCR, the university is expected to lose $37 million in “lost revenue and additional expenses” and another $35-38 million from “staff time dedicated to COVID-19 specific issues.”

UCR did receive a total of $27 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. However, one of the strings attached to these funds was that the university must use half of the money on students. That leaves the university with only $14.9 million to offset the loss of revenue.

Some students recognize the financial strain put on universities and are more understanding regarding tuition. Esau Torres, former Tulare resident and COS graduate, is one of these students.

“It’s hard for me to blame the university because as a business owner, I understand that the university is going to suffer big time.”

Torres is in his 3rd year at UC Berkeley and his tuition cost is a whopping $60,000 a semester (as a business owner Torres does not qualify for most scholarships/grants and has to pay for most of his education out of pocket).

Regardless, Torres is willing to continue paying, because he believes a degree from a prestigious university like UC Berkeley is priceless.

Fall 2020 enrollment numbers for universities will not be known for perhaps several months. But UCR in particular, has actually increased fall admission by 17%, so it seems that some universities are still counting on their reputation to attract students despite the cost.


Fresno State: A Risky Alternative

For students in Tulare County seeking a more affordable higher education alternative, Fresno State (FSU) is a natural choice. Fresno State offers many of the same degrees in the UC system for a fraction of the price.

With that being said, FSU will be taking an unorthodox approach to this fall by allowing some of its students to attend the university in-person and slowly introducing more students/staff via a “multiphase repopulation plan.”

According to the university’s website, the goal is to “provide a quality educational experience for our students while protecting the health and well-being of our campus community.”

The plan has been approved by the CSU Chancellor’s office and will include daily health screenings, temperature checks, and social distancing policies. However, the university also mentioned that it would be each person’s responsibility to adhere to all the health protocols designed to reduce risk of infection while on campus.

For some students, FSU’s repopulation plan is a boon even with the increased risk of infection. Gloria Luna, a recent COS graduate and FSU student, reflected on her experiences as an essential worker and her time at community college.

“It’s a risk I already take while I am at work,” Luna explained. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to be successful and reach my goal and being there on campus and in class was super crucial to my success…If I was given the option [to be on campus] I would like to do that.”

FSU also stated that as the pandemic continues to unfold, the repopulation plan may be put on hold and all courses could return to virtual instruction during the fall.

This may not sit well with students who have had issues with FSU’s remote format.

Luna said that the “Dog Days” online orientation held back in June wasn’t very helpful. She believed having the orientation in a timed Zoom meeting discouraged her from asking all her questions and limited engagement.

Other students like Domingo Munoz, an Iraq veteran and COS graduate, struggled just to get in touch with admissions and apply for the fall.

“It’s been a month and a half and I haven’t been able to get in contact with admissions. I was told to send an email instead, but the email they gave me doesn’t work.”

Unfortunately, students like Munoz who failed to attend the Dog Days orientation, will likely not attend FSU in the fall. This has been particularly hard on Munoz because he has been working on his degree since 2013.

“It’s not like I’m getting younger. I’d like to get my degree and start my career before I hit 40.”

It’s uncertain how issues like this are affecting enrollment.

However, Dr. Alison Mandaville, English professor at FSU, has noticed some classes are being cut from the roster because of low enrollment and “budget issues.” She speculated FSU’s losing the Savemart Center as a source of revenue may have led to indirect losses, along with expected cuts in state funding.

According to the FSU website, the university has received funds from the CARES act to mitigate losses related to the pandemic and more than $16 million of that money has gone to students.

“We’re really doing the best we can with what we have,” Mandaville emphasized.

President Joseph Castro and his administration could not be reached for comment.


A New Golden Age for Community Colleges

Unlike their more prestigious and well-funded counterparts, community colleges do not rely on  high-ticket sources of revenue like room and board, international students, and massive sporting events.

They also generally fare a lot better during times of struggle, specifically when the economy is slumping and unemployment is on the rise. So it is not surprising when Lauren Fishback, Director of Marketing and Public Relations of College of the Sequoias, reports zero financial impacts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s right, COS is doing just fine. And according to students attending universities in the UC system, many are considering making the switch.

“A lot of students are actually dropping out and going to community college just to save money,” Valdez said.

And who could blame them?

Tuition prices at most 4-year universities show no sign of dipping, pandemic or not. So why pay tens of thousands of dollars for a bunch of Zoom classes, when you can take the same courses at a community college for pennies on the dollar?

This is especially relevant for students who did not receive sufficient financial aid and are facing taking on debt to pay for their education.

Leslie Diaz, a Political Science major at UC Berkeley and Tulare County resident, encouraged students to attend community college.

“If you’re going to get loans to attend, I feel like community college is definitely the route,” Diaz concluded. “Because at the end of the day we’ll have the same degree. And even if you do decide to enroll in a university like UC Berkeley right now, it’s not gonna feel like you’re attending.”

Considering all of the above, it’s possible the community colleges like COS may be facing the opposite problem currently plaguing universities: a large surge in student enrollment.

Multiple staff acknowledge a potential influx of students. But there doesn’t seem to be much concern about whether or not COS can handle the increase of incoming students.

“We’re always growing,” Juan Vasquez, Dean of Student Services at College of the Sequoias explained. “COS is and will be prepared to support all students in an equitable way.”

This confidence may stem from the community college’s unique financial situation. Because COS did not suffer any financial impacts, much of the money received from the CARES Act did not go into refunding students like at 4-year universities. Instead, that money went directly into students’ pockets.

“We were literally calling students and telling them, ‘Hey, we have money for you,’” Vasquez said.

A total of $1,929,500 was distributed to eligible students in the month of May. Another $591,500 was disbursed in June.

According to Fishback, there are currently discussions at the administration level on giving even more financial support for COS students this Fall and in the Spring 2021 term.

And because no funds from the CARES act went towards financial losses, COS has about $4 million to put towards improving and easing the costs of transitioning to a remote learning environment.

3 thoughts on “Pandemic puts pressure on universities; students dropping out

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  1. Umm, Cal costs a little over $7,000 a semester for reg fees and tuition, plus $1800 for student health services if you don’t have insurance. That’s a BARGAIN these days!

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