Amid all the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic for higher education, two things are becoming clear. Most students yearn to come back to campus in the fall, in spite of the risks. And if, instead, students wind up receiving online instruction come September, they don’t want to pay full tuition.
These two factors are driving the decision-making of millions of students and their families. In response, many institutions are frantically making elaborate and expensive plans to open up classrooms and dorms, in part because they feel like they have to. Surveys show that an overwhelming majority of students don’t want to pay full cost for another semester of Zoom meetings, and that some incoming freshmen who have been admitted to colleges that choose to extend online learning into the fall might defect to colleges that decide to open their campuses. Substantially fewer students equals plunging tuition revenue, which equals financial disaster at a time when many colleges are already at the fiscal brink.
Colleges that are going with online instruction are playing it safe with the virus, but running the risk of losing enrollment — and tuition revenue — to institutions that promise a semester with dorms and classmates and maybe even a little fun.
All of which presents a no-win dilemma to colleges planning to offer mostly or wholly online instruction. They can discount tuition in hopes of keeping students happy, despite the hit to their bottom line. Or they can stick with full tuition for the fall, and still brace for the possible hit to their bottom line.
A number of colleges have offered reduced, deferred, or even free tuition since the spring, but midsummer has raised a new crop of similar announcements.