As colleges go remote, students revolt against the state of higher ed

A pandemic wave of class-action lawsuits is exposing opposing ideas over the value of college

Published May 9, 2020 2:00PM (EDT)

Washington Square Park (John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx)
Washington Square Park (John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx)

One morning over my spring break, I woke to screaming from outside my college dorm room window: "We have to move out in two days!"

That absurdly short moving window, it turns out, was real. In the wake of the pandemic, most American colleges opted to move teaching online for the remainder of the semester, while hundreds of thousands of college students were ordered to leave their campus dorm rooms — forcing some back to their childhood bedrooms, others scrambling for alternative accommodation.

The jolting orders to move marked another unwanted anxiety for young people already in the throes of what is, for most, a turbulent time in one's life. For the longest time, college was what I looked to as the turning point when I would truly start living. I had my mind set on going abroad for college, and everything before that felt like an intermission. It represented so much to me because it was symbolic — it was a chance for me to rewrite my personal narrative, and to permanently change the course of my life.

Feeling disengaged with my education in Singapore and hungry for more than what my surroundings could provide, I watched free or low-cost college lectures online at home from professors at UCLA, UC Berkeley, and Michael Sandel's popular justice course at Harvard University — the first Harvard course to be made freely available online.

But now, after almost four years abroad, I'm back in the same bedroom on the opposite side of the world, in an online class at 3:30 a.m.The sticker price of tuition (excluding financial aid and scholarships) at the elite institution that I attend, Sarah Lawrence College in New York, is $56,020 a year. Which makes me wonder: What am I paying for? In other words, what is the value of a college education?

"Zoom university is not worth 50k a year," one New York University student wrote in a petition for partial tuition refund that has more than 11,700 signatures so far.

Many students share the same sentiment, and some are even taking legal action against their colleges and universities. A wave of class-action lawsuits from students at Columbia University, University of Miami, Drexel University, and Pace University have been filed to demand partial refunds for the spring semester.

A college degree: a "signal" to employers

These lawsuits reveal very different arguments about what the value of a college degree is. One claim is that "the value of any degree issued on the basis of online or pass/fail classes will be diminished." This claim rests on the idea of job-market signaling in economics, in which the value of a degree comes from the positive signal that it communicates to an employer—for example, tenacity in sticking it out to obtain that education credential, or intrinsic intelligence in navigating the college maze.

Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University and the author of The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, is a proponent of this idea of signaling in higher education. "A lot of the reason why education helps you in the real world is not that you've learned useful skills, but that it's given you a certification. It's given you a stamp on your forehead saying that you're a superior worker. I say, a lot of what people are paying for is actually that signal," Caplan said in an interview with Salon.

In his latest column for The New York Times, Ron Lieber argued that "most people send their children off to college to accomplish one (or all) of at least three goals: They want to stuff their heads so full of knowledge that they explode and then need reassembly into new and improved adult brains. They want their kids to find their people — the friends and mentors who will carry them through life. Finally, there is the credential: A diploma that means something to those who see it on a résumé, one that may also offer a chance to jump a rung or two up the economic ladder."

"The coronavirus shows no sign of diminishing this year's undergraduate degrees as a credential. But for the other two goals, the status quo can fall short," Lieber added.

Scott Carlson, a journalist who has written about higher education for more than two decades at The Chronicle of Higher Education, believes that the biggest loss in value of college degrees won't be its diminished signal. "I don't specifically know how Drexel or some of these other schools are going to be issuing their degrees, but they're not going to stamp on the degree that 'oh, you only got an online education,' right? No employer is going to say, 'did you learn part of your degree online?' So in terms of the signaling, I don't think it's a problem," Carlson told Salon in an interview.

The in-person aspect to learning

The disparity in the quality of instruction with the shift to online classes has students questioning what they're paying for in a college degree. For students in the creative and performing arts, that difference is particularly jarring given how much of their learning comes from hands-on, in-person teaching, and using equipment which are now not available to them.

"I know some people taking a sophomore level class where they're supposed to shoot five films, and now they're allowed to shoot on their own personal equipment, which NYU said is going to level the playing field. Which is insane, because some people have 50-thousand-dollar camera and some people don't even own a phone with a camera," NYU Tisch senior Laine Elliot told Salon.

"If I happen to own a DSLR [camera] and I use that, and my classmate's using their iPhone 6, it's not the same platform at all," said Boscov, who is majoring in Film and Television. "They're learning about the equipment online via Zoom and not hands-on now, which is basically what you can get from a free YouTube video," Elliot continued.

What about students not in the creative and performing arts? "Even if I wasn't receiving an education that wasn't so equipment based and hands-on learning based, I would still feel this education that I'm receiving online is not equal, because you're still in a situation where it's very difficult to connect with your professor in these online classes. It's very difficult to foster discussion. And when discussion does happen, it can often be very stilted and confusing, just because of the nature of interacting with people through a webcam call," said Kaylee Scinto, a senior at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. 

New York University is being sued by Christina Rynasko, a mother of a student at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Rynasko filed a $5 million class-action lawsuit on April 24, arguing that the shift to online classes is not worth the tuition she paid for the semester. This lawsuit comes on the heels of the NYU Tisch Partial Refund Effort, a petition appealing to the Board of Trustees to offer a partial tuition refund for Tisch students.

The Tisch School of the Arts is the most expensive college at NYU — tuition is approximately $3,000 more for a regular course load per semester as compared to other colleges at NYU, and Film Production students must pay laboratory equipment insurance fees of approximately $879 per semester.

"I know for some students, that pays for half your rent, or food for two weeks in New York City," said Elliot, referring to Tisch's production fees. "That's major especially when so many people are getting sick and losing their jobs. You're an arts institution. I'm graduating to no job market. Now, more than ever, a refund would help people stay on their feet until the job market recovers," she continued.

"It may be true that remote learning has cost the university as much as Dean Green stated, but it is not what the students have paid for. We have found the online format to be untenable," a letter to Tisch administrators by a group of students stated.

"The colleges and universities sell in-person, on-campus, experiential education — that is what these students bought and paid for. The students could have opted for a virtual campus or online degree, but they did not. Drexel, for example, advertises that the same degree programs offered online are 40% cheaper than the on-campus programs that deliver the same degree. So it's not about how we are making the comparison but how the schools themselves do," Roy Willey, the class action attorney with the Anastopoulo Law Firm representing students in the lawsuits filed against Drexel University and the University of Miami told Salon.

The lawsuit against Columbia also pointed out that an on-campus undergraduate degree in social work costs approximately $58,612 for an academic year, which is considerably more expensive than the university's online program — tuition for the same degree online costs $48,780.

A College Degree: The College Experience

Lastly, what do college-bound kids envision they're paying for when they imagine going to college? It comes down to all of the things that make up the ambiguous idea of "the college experience." UCI is involved in a project called The Next Generation Undergraduate Success Measurement Project, which is attempting to break down what exactly the college experience is.

"We're trying to measure student experiences, attitudes, and behaviors around ways that are able to document what value students receive from their college education. It's not just growth in general and subject-specific areas, but also about the development of intellectual dispositions; identity formation; finding direction in life; developing civic engagement; and developing social networks," the Dean of the School of Education at UC Irvine, Richard Arum, told Salon.

The uncertainty of the current pandemic has left universities unclear on whether they will hold in-person classes for the upcoming fall semester, with many looking at a hybrid model of in-person and online classes.

According to Inside Higher Ed, college admission officers and college counselors are reporting many more inquiries about deferrals from students and parents. "Students and families are going to be making tough choices around that. Part of that is related to the incredible economic distress that's going to be facing our communities and many of those families," Arum said.

Despite the fuss over Generation Z constituting the first generation of digital natives, high school seniors are not keen on the idea of having to start college online. As Carlson puts it, "For the 18 to 22-year-old, they're kind of thinking about the signal [of a college degree], but I think they're probably thinking more about, 'I really wanted to go to this school, I was really in love with being on this campus. The college experience is this rite of passage for me. That rite of passage is what I was paying for, and not sitting in my living room on Skype talking to my professor.'"

A student behind the University of Miami lawsuit told Salon that college is about preparing you for the real world. "On top of all of the work we are given, many of us are involved in clubs, Greek Life, sports, jobs, and extracurriculars. This can be stressful as we have to learn time management and be responsible with everything that needs to get accomplished. At college, we are able to experience living on our own and having to learn life lessons that help us adapt and prepare for life in the 'real world.'"

"Being home, I have lost the motivation to put our best effort into my work. I often find myself distracted at home with family members conversing or construction on the house next door. I wish for my long hours on the second floor of the library, where my work was accomplished in a timely manner and to the best of my ability. Now, I have lost the desire to work to get good grades or to impress the professors as it is hard to prioritize with a credit/no credit system. College is said to be the best four years of your life and that is due to the experiences you have on campus with others," the University of Miami student added.

"If you're not living at home, you have a few years of comparative independence without (mostly) having to support yourself by working full time; you're away from your parents, and surrounded by peers and by older scholars," Lisa Hirsch wrote on Twitter in response to Lieber's column.

Carlson believes that "so much of college is not about the signal of the degree. It's about the kinds of experiences that you can get from being on that campus and having daily contact with other and new kinds of people. I actually do think there is educational value in a college degree where you're having close relationships, and contact with the people who are instructing you," he said.

Amelia Boscov, a senior at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts agrees. "So much of what I gain from going to classes is learning from my peers and learning how to work with them. It just feels so different to be so isolated right now and not getting that part of my education," she said to Salon.

"I think the most upsetting thing [about the move to online classes] was just that feeling of an immediate loss of community," Scinto said. "It's my senior year, and the thing I love most about going to Tisch is the really strong community that is fostered within the school and my program," she added.

"Being on campus provides a sense of community that we share with peers who are like-minded; challenging and motivating us to be the best version of ourselves. With online classes, I am unable to have the face-to-face talks with professors in office hours, pushing me out of my comfort zone and encouraging me to ask for help when needed," the University of Miami student said.

According to Gallup research data, graduates who strongly agreed that a professor cared about them as a person were 1.9 times more likely to be engaged at work, and 1.7 times more likely to be thriving in their wellbeing. These were two out of six core college experiences studied which strongly relate to important long-term outcomes of engagement in careers and wellbeing after college.

"My question would be, are those kinds of relationships [with professors] imperiled because you're doing it online, or is it a situation where those kinds of relationships could be stronger?" Carlson posed.

Will higher education be transformed?

Arum, the Dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), said it isn't useful to draw a binary comparison between online and in-person learning: "There's a lot of variation in the quality of instruction both online and in person. So simply comparing across the mode of delivery, so I'm not sure that's the most relevant question."

"Right now, in-person teaching is not possible," Vijay Govindarajan, Coxe Distinguished Professor at The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, told Salon. "Obviously, you're not getting the full menu of services online that you get if you attended a residential university. The more interesting question is: How should universities transform post-COVID? How can digital technologies be used to transform, co-create, and enrich learning experiences?"

Govindarajan said there are two components to a class in a blended, hybrid model. "There's the asynchronous component which is delivered online, and then there's the synchronous face-to-face. The asynchronous should be done in an interesting way. So I'm thinking about how I can make a 15-minute high quality video, but even to break that down into five segments of three minutes each, and create applications after three minutes. To have a tremendous amount of immersive experience that's created for students asynchronously. That asynchronous session has to be managed by research associates or teaching associates who then summarize what the students learned in the session to me. Therefore, when I start the class, I already know where the students are struggling. Even in class face-to-face, I will keep a chatroom open. They can continuously post in the chatroom because some students don't feel like talking, but they feel happy writing. What I'm saying is, there are very clear ways to incorporate technology which I cannot even do face-to-face."

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are seeing a resurgence in popularity since universities have moved classes online. MOOCs are free or low-cost courses that delivered online and are open to anyone through course providers such as Udacity or edX. Dhawal Shah, founder of Class Central, a site that serves as a directory of MOOCs, said that he saw a spike in traffic to his site as some states in the U.S. went into lockdown. "Since March 15, Class Central has received over 7 million unique visitors, more than in the entirety of 2019. Due to quarantine measures, suddenly a lot of people found time and were more receptive to learning opportunities," Shah said.

Close to a decade ago, MOOCs seemed to have the potential to disrupt the landscape of higher education with the promise of reaching students who could not afford a traditional degree. However, the reality has turned out to be quite different: "The vast majority of MOOC learners never return after their first year, the growth in MOOC participation has been concentrated almost entirely in the world's most affluent countries, and the bane of MOOCs — low completion rates —  has not improved over 6 years," according to data from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I asked Govindarajan if he foresees the low completion rates of online courses on MOOCs as a problem for universities, and how they would approach online learning differently. "I don't think you can just put up Coursera or edX type of courses," Govindarajan told me. "Maybe there are some universities which don't offer any extra value other what you can already watch on edX, then they can't justify the high tuition," he continued, when I asked about how colleges will justify the high cost of tuition without selling points such as in-person or close interaction with professors possible online.

"I do believe that technology can be leveraged to offer a premium experience, and I think that's what universities who charge a premium price like Dartmouth are thinking. Whereas if you think about University of Delaware or University of Miami or some other university — if you are not giving the same value, even in the face-to-face setting, but you are charging high tuition and now putting those courses online, then people will ask, why am I paying so high?" Govindarajan reasoned.

"If online is replacing just rote lectures, that's not a bad thing. That is, rather than having these factory format lectures that are totally impersonal where you have 300 people in the class, but with a tutorial format, they actually get to interact with the professor in person," Jeffrey Williams, a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, told Salon.

"MOOCs are the exact wrong way to think about the opportunities in terms of online education," Arum continued. "Rather, what I'm talking about is sophisticated courseware where instructions and learning happens in a way that is interactive, that is a personalized instruction that allows for interaction between students and the instructor, but also students with other students. That's the opposite of MOOCs," he added. He continued: "You could move everything to MOOCs right now, that simply reproduces some of the worst aspects of traditional in-person education, the on-the-stage notion that students learn best by just watching and listening to an instructor. That's not at all the vision I can imagine for the future. Tools that are around active learning and enhanced student engagement, personalization, and social interaction — it's those types of tools that we need to develop, not the MOOCs nor classes just occurring in Zoom rooms." 

In an op-ed for Business Insider, Scott Galloway, a professor of Marketing at NYU's Stern School of Business, argued: "The rookie move is to believe that MOOCs or stand-alone education start-ups will be the big winners. . . . They won't."

Shah points out that "the real audience for MOOCs is not the traditional university student but a 'lifelong career learner,' someone who might be well beyond their college years and takes these online courses with the goal of achieving professional and career growth. And I don't think that has changed much." 

"Right now, the signal from Sarah Lawrence College, NYU, or Harvard is far stronger to an employer than the signal saying, 'Oh, I completed this online course and here's the little badge that I get from that,'" Carlson said to me. He continued: "Employers have pulled back on their training function over the last few decades. So they basically outsourced that training to colleges and universities with the signal involved in that. What if employers came back now after COVID and they said, 'you know what, we're not getting the kinds of skills out of students that we really want that are coming out of college?' We're just going to ramp up our training programs again and train our own employees to work in our companies — Amazon has talked about setting up a university."

"If that starts to take off, that's a problem for higher education institutions, but then there's the question: Will students want go to a beautiful campus like Sarah Lawrence, or a city campus like NYU, or some other kind of college environment where they'll want to take advantage of all the things that comes with living and learning among your peers, being in a social environment?" Carlson posed.

However, Arum points out that higher education in the U.S. in particular is very expensive because it's heavily dependent on a residential model. "It's about twice the cost of education in Europe," he said. "There's a larger discourse on the value of college and its high cost. There's been growing concern about that related to larger economic challenges in our society with growing economic insecurity and a growing sense of the precariousness of the middle class in our society. This pandemic brings those existing concerns to the surface in a pronounced way, but those questions are not new."

Govindarajan believes that we need to look at the model of higher education and why it costs so much in the first place, and how we can circumvent that with technology. "Bernie Sanders has this notion of free college for everyone. I think that his objective is spot on. College education should be a human right. But free college for all misses the point, because what free college for all essentially says is the cost structure of college education is not changed. When you make it free, you're shifting the cost from one pocket to another. You make it free to students, somebody has got to pay that cost. What we should be asking instead is, how do you bring that down so that every American can afford this? And I think technology is a wonderful tool because technology scales at zero marginal cost," Govindarajan said.

Galloway predicts that we could see "big (and some small) tech firms partnering with a world class university to offer 80% of a traditional four-year degree for 50% of the price." Earlier this week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and the Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation has been chosen to "reimagine" New York's school system, and the state's relationship with technology. Cuomo's announcement has been widely criticized by politicians, activists, public school principals, and the New York state teachers' union.

Others think that we should be wary of falling into techno-utopianism or techno-optimism. "I think that most people, if they can afford it, would rather have a bespoke education," said Williams. "I think the issue is not that technology is so wonderful, the issue is because it wouldn't be socially paid for, we're thinking of cheaper ways to deliver it to people. What's clear is that online is offered as a cheaper way to do it — a lesser product given to people who are of lower social class. It's possible higher education will be more classed, and it already is deeply classed."

Govindarajan put forth three questions he thinks undergraduate institutions should be asking themselves. "Question one: Do students really need a four-year residential experience? The answer to that question depends on, what is it that we currently do in the four-year residential program that can be substituted, what can be supplemented, and what can be complimented by technology? Second question is, what improvements do we need to make to the IT infrastructure to facilitate online education? And the third question is, what kind of training are you going to give the faculty and the students?" he posed.

It is apparent that should online education have to continue into the fall semester, certain colleges will come out on top, while others will struggle to adapt. "The instructional cost of providing education haven't decreased for these institutions. If anything, they've increased as they've had to purchase software upgrades and different enhancements to move instruction online. I think it's important to recognize that many of these universities not in the elite sector per se, but in higher education more broadly, are going to be pushed by this current pandemic to the brink of financial insolvency," Arum warned.

"You have to remember that the cost of higher education — 85% of it is personnel. So it's somehow implied in a demand for reduced price of tuition in the current moment, higher education institutions should be laying off faculty and instructors. I think that's not a sensible approach to this current crisis that we're facing not just as a country, but globally," Arum added. Ohio University recently announced layoffs for teaching-track and tenure-track junior faculty, which has been attributed to long-term financial mismanagement.

In the two decades of his reporting on higher education, Carlson has seen many storied and unique colleges close. "The higher education landscape [in the U.S.] is so diverse and broad with so many interesting creatures within it. With COVID, we will undoubtedly see some of these wiped off the face of the map. That's a real shame. In the past year, Green Mountain College and Marlboro College went out of business completely, and Hampshire College is in trouble. All three of these schools are really interesting colleges, and it took a lot of resources and effort to get them started. Green Mountain College was a college that had a great niche. It was declared the most sustainable college in the country by Sierra magazine year after year. It's going to be hard for us to recreate places like that going forward," he said.

"Part of the reason why this is happening is because colleges don't know their business very well. The finance side of the house is not as deep and supported as other parts of the enterprise. Colleges really don't know their costs — they don't know what it costs them to graduate a student who's a nursing major versus an English major. They don't know because it's a really complicated calculation to make — it's not like they're a manufacturing company that's just pumping out a widget. Their widget at some level is, you the student with a degree. But you the student, you have a mind of your own, and you can take a totally unique pathway from your other friend who's only a major in your particular degree, but maybe has a different minor," explained Carlson.

Consequently, he tells me, "what's happened to the industry is the bigger getting bigger and richer, and a number of smaller colleges are struggling to stay afloat. These smaller colleges that are struggling to stay afloat, they are largely rural, mostly private colleges, are church affiliated or were church affiliated at one time. They are colleges that are sort of no-name colleges, or colleges that have less prominence in the market and largely draw from local populations of students. They're far from cities, and students now more and more because of the internship and employment opportunities want to be located closer to the city."

For elite institutions that are not going to be pushed to the brink of financial insolvency because they've built endowments that have grown tremendously over the past few decades, Arum reminds me that these endowments are not taxed since they are considered to be nonprofit institutions thought to be acting in the public interest. "When you have those same types of resources at your disposal, but you've resisted adding enrollments to expand access to your institutions, and over the past decades you've done little to nothing in terms of expanding the proportion of students that are coming from low-income family backgrounds to your institutions — then, the question I get to raise is, what obligation do you have to support the larger social and public good of society?" Arum questioned.

"What Mitchell Stevens and I were arguing [in the New York Times] is, you have an obligation to help invest in standing up high quality instructional tools that can expand educational opportunity broadly throughout society. And there, those elite institutions have the resources, both financial and also in terms of legitimacy to do that work in a way that would provide an extraordinary public good for the country moving forward," Arum added.

"In my adult lifetime — certainly since the 80s — everybody's talked about innovation, but we have reached the highest degree of inequality [in] that time. So everybody acts like innovation is wonderful, but that jury has already rendered its verdict, because if it's more inequitable and unjust, we need to rethink what innovation is about," Williams cautioned.

For students at institutions that have less resources to adapt to this potential new normal, they stand a lot to lose. "Online instruction done poorly has disastrous effects on educational equity. When you provide low quality instruction online, we know definitely from the research that it leads to incredibly disparate educational outcomes. I think anyone who looks at what's happening in higher education more broadly today would have to be deeply concerned that all the progress we've made in recent decades to improve and address educational inequity is going to be set back by decades because of the pandemic and the types of education that students are going to be experiencing in the months ahead," Arum emphasized.

The winnowing of the higher education landscape will have a ripple effect that will affect not just professors, students, and employees of those institutions, but the communities that those colleges are embedded in.

"What would happen to Ithaca, New York, if Ithaca College went away? What would happen to Utica, New York, if Utica College went away?" Carlson asked. "Now that Green Mountain College has died, Poultney, Vermont is in a lot of trouble. We would like to see a lot of these institutions continue to thrive because they are the last hope for some parts of America," Carlson concluded.

By Shane Tan

Shane Tan is a writer, student at Sarah Lawrence College, and an editorial intern for Salon. Their work has appeared in Esquire Singapore, Surface magazine, Yahoo! News, and Marie France Asia. Find Shane on Twitter at @itsShaneTan


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