In the wake of over 120,000 deaths due to COVID-19 nationwide and a massive economic downturn, universities are left with the task of reimagining higher education in the age of the pandemic. One of the many questions among students is “What will happen to the cost of tuition?”
Recently, Columbia College Student Council, the Engineering Student Council, and General Studies Student Council sent a resolution to the Columbia board of trustees calling for a University commitment to a temporary tuition freeze for the 2020-21 academic year. Putting a tuition freeze in place would keep tuition costs the same as those from the 2019-20 academic school year, pausing the ongoing trend of annual tuition hikes.
The resolution details the “dire impact” of Columbia already boasting the highest net tuition and fees in the country at a time when the national unemployment is projected to lie between 10 and 16 percent for the next 18 months.
Though the University has yet to publicize its tuition prices for next year, other institutions, including the University of Chicago, have announced that they will not raise tuition prices for undergraduates during the 2020-2021 school year in an effort to alleviate part of the financial and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on students and their families.
Since 2009, tuition for undergraduates in Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science has risen by more than 55 percent. Over the last 20 years, the growing revenue from students paying full tuition has helped to keep the infamously shaky Arts and Sciences budget afloat. Alumni and stakeholder donations to financial aid have dwindled, while at the same time, the struggling budget stretches to cover the costs of massive expansion projects.
Instead, Columbia depends on the money it receives from students paying full tuition to fund the grants of other students, a strategy that has stagnated socioeconomic diversity over the last 15 years.
Following the Great Recession, the 2009-2010 academic year featured a 4.8 percent increase in the cost of tuition for undergraduates to help offset the University’s revenue losses. In comparison, recent years have shown a steady increase in tuition of 3.9 percent annually.
However, the drastic effects of unemployment in the Great Recession have been surpassed by the pandemic. Today, the University takes on massive losses in revenue, but, nevertheless, it must still find a way to contend with the unique struggles that its students face amid the current recession.
Because low-wage jobs have taken the greatest hit from the pandemic, the resolution also calls for a freeze during a time when a hike in the cost of tuition would affect students more unequally than ever before. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, over half of lower-income adults report having trouble paying some of their bills in the month of April, a figure that’s nine percentage points higher than a typical month. On the other hand, individuals in the upper-income bracket are three times more likely than lower-income adults to have enough emergency savings to last three months of citywide shutdowns, and their salaries are less likely to be negatively impacted.
General Studies students, who are presumably less likely to rely on parental support for tuition payments, are also more likely to have preexisting financial struggles. Serengeti Timungwa, GS ’23, the vice president of policy for GSSC, added that General Studies students are more likely to not only hold jobs to support themselves but also hold lower-wage jobs that have disproportionately been put on pause when compared to higher-paying jobs.
“Many GS students have jobs; some have multiple jobs,” Timungwa said. “I have a few friends who worked two jobs and they also go to school, and a lot of them have lost these.”
While Columbia College and SEAS pledge to meet the financial needs of students should the cost of tuition grow, many students can only rely on up to $6,345 for the 2020-2021 school year from the Pell Grant—a federal grant that nearly 40 percent of General Studies students qualify for. Only 2 percent of students at the school has a financial aid package that fully meets their demonstrated need. General Studies students pay per credit point, while Columbia College and SEAS students enrolled in 17 credits pay $32,232 per term, an amount that substantially increases with the notoriously high cost of living in New York City and without guaranteed housing on campus. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, more than a third of General Studies students struggled with food insecurity.
Timungwa said that the school’s high percentage of low-income students, coupled with its dearth of financial aid, would render General Studies students more vulnerable to the effects of a hike in tuition.
“Talking about a school that has a small amount of financial aid, where students have to cover for themselves, but those students have lost their jobs or had to move or lost housing. Talking about increasing tuition for those students, I personally feel, should be inconceivable,” Timungwa said.
In an interview with Spectator on rising tuition at Columbia prior to the onset of the pandemic, Amy Hungerford, executive vice president for Arts and Sciences and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said that annual tuition increases do not reduce access among low-income students. The University’s need-blind policy guarantees Columbia College and SEAS students need-based financial aid regardless of potential increases in tuition.
Hungerford said that generally speaking, rising tuition primarily affects students who do not qualify for University financial aid or those in the upper-middle-class income brackets.
“At the high end, the tuition probably doesn’t register, but I think the groups for which it really makes a difference on the margin is the middle-class family who can barely afford full tuition and [are] asked to shoulder that,” Hungerford said.
Estevan Mesa, SEAS ’22, the vice president of policy for ESC, said that although Columbia College and SEAS need-based financial aid grants tens of thousands of dollars not offered to General Studies undergraduates, those who owe partial tuition have lost work opportunities this summer that they need to make tuition payments.
“Yes, there are students that receive full tuition financial aid coverage but there [are] still several students who are in situations where they have to pay something out of pocket,” Mesa said. “For many of those students, they have to rely on themselves; they don’t have [other resources] that they can turn to as a safety net.”
Deputy News Editor Sofia Partida can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Spectator on Twitter at @ColumbiaSpec.