The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Tuesday September 21st

Column: The cost of higher education in a COVID-19 world

Here at The Daily Tar Heel, we are no stranger to calling it like we see it — and as I’m seeing it, UNC in a COVID-19 world needs some work. Changes made to protect public health, including a move to remote learning, campus “de-densification” resulting in fewer opportunities for student and professor interaction and reduced campus operations have left many Tar Heel students floundering. It feels more than reasonable to ask for partial tuition refunds from our school considering the worsened financial situations many of us find ourselves in amid the economic fallout of COVID-19. 

However, UNC cannot adequately support its students if it cannot financially care for itself. We cannot entirely fault the University for its inability to handle this unexpected crisis, when in many ways, the financial stress is just an amplification of the already faltering system in place before the crisis.

In the last 20 years, accelerated by the onset of the Great Recession, the financial structure of higher education in the United States has changed for the worse. Previously, public university funding was primarily supported by monetary contributions from the state. However, after state funding began to drop, public universities had no choice but to cut costs and source income in new ways. To cover the balance, universities reacted in part by raising tuition and fees, putting already financially strained students at an increasing disadvantage.

Nationally, in-state tuition for public universities has jumped an alarming 221 percent in the past 20 years, while out-of-state tuition has jumped 181 percent. To cut costs, universities have reduced faculty, streamlined or otherwise decreased course options and reduced on-campus services. Ultimately, a lack of state support and progression to a more privatized funding model has resulted in an unfortunate and inevitable development: higher costs and fewer opportunities for students, particularly those with limited income.

As college gets more expensive for students, higher education's focus has shifted from student growth and development to a business model focused on profit and expenditure necessary for university survival. With an emphasis on packing more students into the classroom in order to support their cost of operation, COVID-19 was just about the worst thing that could have happened to higher education. Before the pandemic, nearly a third of private and public colleges were already operating under a deficit. Now, many small liberal arts colleges have had to shut down entirely due to increasing financial pressure, and more colleges are projected to shut down as the 2020 economic recession worsens. 

A society's values are reflected in its investments, and the current higher education system isn’t adequately investing in its students to meet the demands of America’s future. Universities are a cog in an economic machine that doesn’t do higher education or its students justice. If we believe in higher education — and the knowledge, critical thinking skills and personal growth that universities help to foster — we should do more to secure its future. 

A college education shouldn’t approximate a transactional milestone. Universities should challenge students primarily in coursework and intellectual development, not in financial cost. The current structure of higher education might resemble a business, but at the moment, I am not a happy customer.  

@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com

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