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Education

College in Colorado will be different this fall, but not cheaper

Coronavirus upended most everything about the on-campus college experience, including classroom debates, dorm life and schedules. Students say that should be reflected in their tuition bills.

"I'm Bored" sign posted in a dorm room in Lawrenson Hall during the COVID shutdown at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado, on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Trust)
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Coronavirus forced Colorado’s top universities and colleges to eviscerate the student experience for the fall 2020 semester. 

On-campus housing? Down to a chosen few.

Jobs on or near campus? Many are gone. 

Stimulating seminars after a brisk walk across a leaf-strewn campus? Written off, in favor of online-only classes.

Meticulously calculated class schedules to meet major or matriculation demands? Torn up. 

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Well, surely tuition and other fees that can soar into the upper five figures have been discounted to reflect this decidedly subpar product?

About that. 

In a Colorado Sun survey of five major public and private institutions — University of Colorado, Colorado State, University of Denver, Colorado College and University of Northern Colorado — none are lowering tuition or other costs, and there’s been only a mixed effort to boost financial aid to reflect the dire financial straits of many paying families.

Only Colorado College — perhaps not coincidentally the only one willing to answer questions live — mentioned any kind of deal at all: In the distinctive CC “block system,” where students take one intensive class at a time and a total of eight a year, they can now take 10 credits for the price of eight. 

“The blend of in-person, hybrid, remote and online courses that will be offered will not diminish the quality and value of a degree from CU Boulder,” the university said in written responses to questions sent to all five institutions. CU notes that it held tuition steady for this year after many past increases, and that freshmen get a four-year price guarantee.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Because state universities have done a good job educating students at full price up to this point, the student evaluations of this failure of tuition imagination are articulate, and brutal.

“If a student is taking all online classes and not living in Boulder, then I don’t see the need for them to pay the price of an in-person education,” said Kalkidan Bulbula, a rising junior majoring in biochemistry and leader of the Black Student Alliance at CU Boulder. “The calculation should be different.” 

Kalkidan Bulbula, a rising junior majoring in biochemistry and leader of the Black Student Alliance at CU Boulder, says students are worried about the quality of studying at home. “Am I still going to be able to achieve my best at school? And a lot of times the answer is no, and I think universities across the nation forget that.” (Special to The Colorado Sun)

CU and other universities are getting U.S. government bailouts for their added coronavirus costs and lost revenue, noted Bulbula, a first-generation college student. “CU is getting a lot of leeway federally — they should give the same leeway to their students.” 

Higher education officials note they have lost massive revenue from spring tuition refunds, higher costs for safety and distance learning setups, athletics cancellations and more, said Cayden Stice, a rising senior at CU Boulder studying history and political science. They should, Stice said, also hear more about how many opportunities students have lost.

“I am among those students, having lost my on-campus job, now searching for new employment for this upcoming semester,” Stice said. “That the university is having a budget crisis of its own should not allow for a blindspot around the financial struggles for students.”

A fresh dusting of snow covers the Flatirons and the University of Colorado Boulder campus. (Photo by Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado)

Students quickly add the loss of intangibles that everyone hopes for in college life: Meeting new people, spontaneous run-ins or parties, a heady classroom debate, a club that helps you finally find your group. In a national survey by Populace, 43% of college-bound students said their college experience was likely to be somewhat or much worse than a normal year

Questions over fair costs during COVID-19 come after years of already-heated debate about soaring higher education expenses and how they’ve altered the transition to adulthood in America. Private and public universities have raised prices relentlessly for years while family incomes have barely budged. Now college juniors and seniors will be graduating into a job market cratered by the pandemic, with even fewer prospects for truly paying off their family’s four-year investment. 

Long before COVID-19 hit, more than half of Colorado students were graduating with debt, with the average in the state at nearly $25,000 in loans per student, according to data from the Institute for College Access & Success for the class of 2018. The national unemployment rate for people aged 20 to 24 was 19.8% in June after COVID-19 crushed dozens of employment categories, triple the rate for that group a year ago.

The “product” Colorado’s top institutions will be offering students this fall will be far different from a normal year. CU Boulder, for example, will have far fewer students living in dorms, and may contract with local hotels to create distanced housing. Labs for science students like Bulbula will be in-person as long as COVID-19 is under control, but many CU classes will be remote by video, even for those living on campus. 

Notes sit next to the laptop as Jade Brolly works on her computer in her dorm on the University of Northern Colorado campus, Saturday, April 11, in Greeley. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, is still working out what classes can be in-person and what will be on video, a spokesman wrote in email responses. “We are committed to continue delivering on our promise of high-quality learning at the rates we have set regardless of the modality,” UNC wrote. 

At Colorado College, with about 2,000 undergraduates, only first-year students will be on campus for the first “block” of classes. “Block 2, we hope to have everyone here who wants to be here,” acting co-president Robert Moore said in a phone interview. Plans will likely change, he added. Faculty spent the summer in additional training on effective remote teaching, in case students are sent home again during the winter, Moore said. 

So now: the price tag? 

CU Boulder is touting the fact that while it is not lowering tuition to reflect the pandemic, it didn’t raise it, either. From 2004 to 2013, CU tuition jumped 8% or more for eight of the 10 years, with increases of 28% and 19% in two of the years. 

In a statement explaining the regents’ decision to leave CU Boulder tuition flat — though some regents objected — a CU spokesperson said: “The blend of in-person, hybrid, remote and online courses that will be offered will not diminish the quality and value of a degree from CU Boulder. Knowing that Colorado’s current financial challenges will impact CU Boulder, we will need to align our resources to provide for health and safety supplies, to support academic and IT needs to develop technology-enabled instruction, and to offer COVID-19 compliant access to facilities and resources that support all students, faculty and staff.”

The University of Denver, a private institution with more than 12,000 graduate and undergraduate students, also said in a statement that their experience would be similar enough to not warrant a tuition break: “We have not modified the tuition as the university will be offering a combination of in-person, hybrid and online courses and students will have access to all the other resources they require.”

Students, of course, say the resources are not at all the same. Housing is radically altered in most places. Schedules are torn up. Professors are opting out of in-person learning. Labs will go on only as long as the virus is under control. Campus work has often been canceled, or could be any moment. A professor who tests positive at the end of a day may already have seen dozens of students before finding out. 

Many friends in the Black students group at CU, Bulbula said, are still anxiously awaiting financial aid news for the coming semester.

“They are thinking if their FAFSA doesn’t work out, they’ll stay home with their parents and be online. But the biggest complaint is, your house isn’t always a great environment to study in,” she said. “Am I still going to be able to achieve my best at school? And a lot of times the answer is no, and I think universities across the nation forget that.” 

University of Colorado volunteers, from left, Merrilee Peterson, Al Friesen and Erin Dewese, load fresh food into a car during the last pop-up food pantry of the summer on the Boulder campus. Since June, more than 3,000 people received food, 85% of whom were CU students, staff or faculty. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Some of the five institutions are trying to find more money for students. 

DU said it set aside $4.7 million in need-based aid for students with a sudden change of circumstances in the spring or for the coming fall. DU also applied for federal CARES Act funding for individual students in May, and received $2.3 million for distribution to 862 students. DU’s cost for tuition and on-campus living is $68,000. 

UNC also said it was distributing CARES Act money to students, but added, “That said, UNC already provides significant financial aid to students at a rate that exceeds most of our peers. We have a long-standing commitment to keeping our price as low as possible and our aid as high as possible and thus do not have the margin to increase institutional financial aid.” 

Colorado College’s Moore said the school prides itself on meeting all financial need for those who seek it, and that it has been working with families who have said their circumstances changed. But CC also is unique in having recently launched a set of true-cost tiers: Families who make less than $60,000 a year pay nothing for tuition or board, and even those up to the $200,000 tier of income will pay no more than Boulder’s tuition. 

The five institutions varied in what sacrifices they have demanded from administrators, faculty and staff, another of The Colorado Sun’s common questions. 

CSU did not ask for salary reductions or furloughs, and specifically linked it to the decision to keep tuition flat. The combination of actions, CSU said in a statement, reflect “that the university is committed to maintaining our investment in our people — our students, faculty and staff.” 

UNC said some staff were furloughed in June and July, while executive levels took a 10% pay cut. The board may revisit temporary salary cuts identified by a task force “later this fall when the financial picture becomes clearer.”

Fellow students cart furniture and belongings out of their dorms as Jade Brolly sits outside of Turner Hall on the University of Northern Colorado campus, Saturday, April 11, in Greeley.(Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CU Boulder cut salaries beginning July 1 by 5% for those earning more than $60,000 a year, and 10% for the chancellor, vice chancellors and deans. Classified and temporary staff are exempt. 

Colorado College wiped out a July 1 salary increase for most faculty and staff, but went ahead with a 1% pay increase for the lowest-paid staff, Moore said.

Though universities are waiting anxiously to see what percentage of their usual enrollment actually shows up for classes and pays their bills this fall, there has not been a high-profile, mass uprising of students demanding change.

Isaiah Chavous said he has been looking out for that, as one of three co-presidents in the CU Boulder student government. Chavous himself is OK with CU’s fee system staying level, since many of the fees go to student government services — needed now more than ever — in housing stability, mental health support, legal services and more. 

“These are things that will be stable in the student experience, no matter how it’s laid out,” Chavous said. 

University leadership will focus on where enrollment ends up and what students give as reasons for their choices, Chavous said. “I stand with the board of regents with their logic behind it; it will be a testing year of sorts to truly understand where students’ needs need to be met.”