Texas students say pandemic-era tuition should be cut

Tuition going up at some schools due to distance learning fees

By Raga Justin, Texas Tribune

Paying for her tuition at the University of North Texas was already going to be a challenge this fall for Aimee Tambwe. Just recently, her dad — who helps pay for her education — lost his job because of pandemic-related layoffs.

So Tambwe, who is taking most of her classes remotely this semester, was dumbfounded to see her tuition bill increase by $315 because of “distance education” fees for five courses she’s signed up to take.

“This is not something that we can control. I didn’t plan for a pandemic,” Tambwe said. “I don’t think it’s fair to increase the fees on top of students losing their jobs and funding. This does not help me.”

Students across Texas are denouncing what they view as unfair increases in fees that add to the financial strain on students, especially during a pandemic in which thousands of Texans are losing their jobs and their homes. It’s further injury to students who have instead argued for tuition decreases because of restrictions to campus amenities and experiences that are typically paid for with their fees.

At the University of North Texas, the distance learning fee is $35 per credit hour, capped at $315. According to the school’s website, the fee is used to support the management, delivery and technology for distance education courses.

UNT officials say it’s not a new fee, but because the pandemic has necessitated more students going remote, the fee is being applied more widely.

UNT Provost Jennifer Cowley said in an interview that she was sympathetic to students’ frustration.

“I totally understand where it would be coming from,” Cowley said.

Currently, 28% of the fall’s course offerings are online and come with the corresponding distance learning fee, Cowley said.

As students call for tuition cuts, Texas university officials have defended their prices, saying that online classes are not less expensive than in-person classes because faculty and staff still need to be paid. There are also some additional costs associated with technology upgrades needed for more remote instruction.

At other schools across Texas, students are facing sticker shock over some price hikes made months before the pandemic. At the University of Texas at Austin, undergraduate tuition rates will increase by 2.6% per year until 2022, a move that will increase tuition by more than $140 per semester for the next two years.

A recent petition from the Texas State Employees Union calls for a tuition decrease of 10% for the duration of the pandemic across the University of Texas System. There are at least five tuition-related lawsuits against Texas universities, stemming from students demanding discounted tuition or reimbursements because of the campus changes related to COVID-19 responses.

A recent survey of UT-Austin students also showed that 91% of students were not satisfied with tuition rates.

Gabrielle Vidmar, a Texas State University student, said the San Marcos school had estimated she would pay nearly $7,000 in tuition and fees for the fall semester – including almost $1,000 in new “electronic course” and “off-campus class” fees for classes that had been designated as online because of the pandemic. Her previous tuition bills have been around $4,000.

Texas State later reversed course and shaved off many fees for students, including Vidmar. But the sting remains, compounded by the fact that Vidmar’s money will still be going toward services like athletics and the library, neither of which she plans to participate in or use during the pandemic.

“We are not getting the bang for our buck,” Vidmar said. “It sucks … that the general consensus is that we feel Texas State doesn’t care about us. And that they’re in it for the money.”

A spokesperson for the school declined to comment and referred questions to a statement released by the school.

Texas State University revised its fee structure in late July. If a student has at least one face-to-face class, school officials said, the $50 per-credit-hour electronic course fee would be dropped. But if a student only takes online and hybrid courses, the electronic course fees would remain while $342 in on-campus fees will be waived.

“Texas State leadership recognizes the hardships our Bobcat Community is experiencing because of COVID-19,” a message from the school reads. It notes that the change will waive more than $7 million in fees for students.

Students like Vidmar, with one in-person class, are off the hook. But others, who may be afraid to go to campus or who simply are placed in online-only classes, will be charged the full slate of distance education fees.

“We didn’t get a stimulus check, we didn’t get help from anyone,” said McKenzie Decker, a Texas State student who started a petition to erase all the online fees. “They’re screwing over students that may not have a choice here.”