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Do Students Need a Bill of Rights?

A coalition of higher education reform organizations, led by Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, came out with a “Tuition Payer Bill of Rights” last Wednesday, as COVID-19 continues to shut down campus services.

The initiative comes after over 100 class action lawsuits against colleges and universities, questioning whether students should be putting tuition and fees toward services they’re not receiving.

College students “lost key lifelines like meal plans, dorm housing and campus healthcare when they were ordered off campus,” said Jesse Barba, senior director of external relations at Young Invincibles, one of the coalition’s members. “We think it is accurate to say that COVID-19 has resulted in a breach of delivery of the quality of educational experiences and activities that students and their families paid for in the spring semester. With any other service and good, if you had a default or it’s not up to the standard it was sold to you, you have recourse.”Student Debt

The document ultimately outlines six rights: It says students have the right to services guaranteed by tuition, like room and board, and should be refunded when those services aren’t available; They should be able to opt out of paying for non-essential services like athletics; They should have access to no-cost, online options for their textbooks; They have a right to detailed, clear explanations of their anticipated college costs, their financial aid and how their institutions spend tuition dollars; They have a right to information about how much a degree from a particular school is likely to increase their earnings before they enroll; And they should be able to address governing and advisory boards for their institutions before decisions that impact them are made.

The coalition plans to present a petition signed by students, parents and other concerned parties to higher education institutions and their trustees, urging them to adopt the bill of rights. It also put out a checklist for tuition payers with a list of questions students should ask themselves this fall, like whether they know how to contact the people making COVID-19 policies for their university or whether they know if their tuition will be discounted if classes move online.

The goal is to give students and parents the tools they need to “self-advocate,” Barba said.

In response to calls for tuition reductions, campus leaders have pointed to dropping enrollment rates and financial strain for higher education institutions. In June, the American Council on Education estimated that colleges and universities will spend approximately $74 billion preparing for the fall semester – and that number doesn’t take into account increasing financial need among students or decreasing state support.

Laura Keane, chief policy officer at uAspire, another coalition partner, acknowledged that financial struggle is a “real concern” for many institutions, and online courses aren’t inherently cheaper. She also recognizes that how institutions respond to COVID-19 and how much that costs them will “highly vary” based on geography, infection rates, endowment size and other factors.

But she sees transparency as key to affordability, calling it “no longer a nice-to-have, but a must have.” Even pre-COVID-19, colleges were vague about what services fall under the term “fees,” she wrote in an email to Diverse, so students don’t even necessarily know what services they’re paying for. Right now, leaders need to clearly communicate to students “what the college can deliver, at what cost” in time for students “to choose if this meets their needs – without penalty.”

If colleges and universities are “opaque” about where students’ money goes, without an option to opt out of services, schools risk creating a repeat of what happened in the economic downturn in 2008, Barba noted.

“During the last recession, we saw students put their careers on hold and went back to school to sharpen their credentials,” he said. “What happened? They came out still unemployed but now with tons of debt. Many predatory schools and institutions emerged. We know the story.”

“College is supposed to be the ticket to financial security,” he added. “It always has been.”

Keane hopes the pandemic will be a wake-up call to colleges and universities about the consumer protections students need, not just during the pandemic but beyond.

Schools need to “recognize that for a majority of students in our country, financing a college education is a lifetime investment, one that takes decades to pay off and affects other life decisions such as buying a home and starting a family,” she said. “We hope the Tuition Bill of Rights … leads to greater student engagement in the work ahead to improve transparency and ultimately reduction of college costs. We hope it helps spark innovation – at both the institutional and policy levels – to create ways to deliver quality higher education with a lower price tag and reduce the inequities in higher education today.”

Sara Weissman can be reached at [email protected].

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