A discounted education should not be sold at full price

March 18, 2020, 4:12 p.m.

In a whirlwind of COVID-19 developments, Stanford has scrambled to enact sensible and timely policies, such as moving large populations of students off campus and postponing final exams. Though the University announced that spring quarter will be online-only for the foreseeable future, it has kept many of its academic and tuition policies unchanged for spring. The undergraduate FAQ currently states that the University will not change tuition rates on the spring undergraduate bill and will not change policies on transfer credit and reduced unit loads. It does not discuss guaranteed aid years. Overall, the administration has said little beyond a suggestion from Provost Persis Drell that “[if] a student feels that a spring quarter with online instruction will not meet their expectations, they have the option to take a leave of absence for spring quarter and re-enroll at a later date.” 

Given continued uncertainty as to how spring quarter will unfold and the great pressures that Stanford’s decisions have already placed on students, the University’s stance on spring tuition has been strikingly obdurate and insufficient. We call on the administration to lower tuition rates and change financial aid policy in light of the present circumstances. We focus below on policies for undergraduates, but similar changes where appropriate may be warranted to support graduate students as well.

For many students, deciding whether to enroll in spring quarter is difficult. Online classes will be less immersive and interactive than in-person classes, and some classes for which in-person interaction is central will be impossible. Since most students will be off campus in the spring, they will have no access to on-campus resources, such as labs and gyms, which are supported by their tuition and fees. Many students will enroll in spring in order to stay on pace with their academic careers, even if they realize that a quarter of tuition would be better spent on in-person rather than online instruction. Graduating seniors with plans in place in the summer and fall, for example, have no option but to complete their academic careers begrudgingly under current conditions. For those on financial aid who would not be able to afford a 13th quarter without that aid, the decision whether to enroll this quarter will be doubly difficult, as those students may feel the need to save one of their quarters of financial aid for a later, in-person quarter.

Given the current state of spring quarter, we call on the administration to make three changes:

First, for students who are enrolled full-time, spring tuition must be lowered. A reduction in spring tuition is necessary to accurately reflect the inevitable limitations in the educational quality of online-only classes, the reduction in course offerings and the inaccessibility of resources that tuition would normally cover. Any class that normally meets in person will be negatively impacted by a shift to online instruction, a phenomenon many already experienced with classes at the end of winter quarter. In addition, many classes for which in-person interaction is integral cannot be offered at all, including some lab-based, practicum, workshop and activity classes. The shrinking of the course catalogue will tangibly alter students’ course selections in the spring. Nor will students be able to access on-campus resources supported by their tuition dollars — resources including gyms, labs, technology centers, study spaces and practice rooms. Support from community centers across campus will be severely restricted, and extracurricular speaking events and colloquiums will be canceled. 

That these factors warrant a tuition reduction should be obvious, and student support for tuition reduction is clear: Over 900 students signed a recent petition demanding such a change. However, the provost recently indicated to graduate students that their tuition would not be reduced, and that their only recourse would be to take a leave of absence. By granting us our degrees, Stanford may have a monopoly on us, but it must not use this monopoly power to charge us full tuition for a substantially restricted academic quarter. 

Second, students should be given more flexibility in designing long-term study plans. To that end, we propose that the administration consider two possibilities. The first possibility would be to universalize the option of a reduced course load, which is currently available to students covered under the American Disabilities Act and to those who have been specially approved. This change would permit all students to elect to take between 8 and 11 units in the spring without paying full tuition. The second possibility would be to offer students the option of paying per unit, which is how tuition is presently assessed during summer quarter. 

Both of the above proposals acknowledge that minimum unit requirements make little sense in the current environment. They would ease the strain on students to plan for uncertain futures. These measures, too, have garnered student support, including a petition with almost 500 signatures. 

In addition to the possibilities above, the leave-of-absence policy should be updated to refund all of spring tuition if a student takes a leave after the quarter begins but before the add-drop deadline, rather than refunding at a prorated rate, as is the current policy. Given that students cannot anticipate how the dramatic changes in educational format will affect their learning outcomes, students should be granted flexibility to change course should online, off-campus instruction be insufficient for their needs.

Third, the Financial Aid Office should consider providing a 13th quarter of financial aid for students who are unable to satisfactorily complete spring quarter, either because online instruction has been inadequate or because of further disruptions due to coronavirus. With the continuing uncertainty of the upcoming quarter, and with the additional financial burdens moving off campus has caused, students on financial aid should not have to worry about whether they would essentially lose a quarter of aid in spring if developments in the COVID-19 epidemic further disrupt their spring quarter. Offering the possibility of a 13th quarter of aid would not eliminate these concerns but would at least greatly mitigate them. Furthermore, students who need to enroll in spring quarter to stay on track but would need to adjust their academic plans to accommodate obligations that may arise from returning home (earning income for their families, household work, etc.) should not have to use a full quarter of aid on an academic term they cannot take full advantage of. 

The University has been requiring students to make important and often binding decisions about the upcoming quarter in an incredibly quick timeframe, while also changing its own course of action nearly by the day. It is not only coronavirus but also Stanford’s rapidly changing response to coronavirus that is putting great psychological, emotional, logistical and financial stresses upon students. The University has already made laudable steps in supporting students’ spring housing plans, providing housing and food stipends for those who need them. But as Stanford prepares for a spring quarter unlike any other, it should do more to lessen the burden on students when it can. The proposals we recommend here — tuition reduction, student status flexibility and changes to financial aid policy — are steps in the right direction. 

The Vol. 257 Editorial Board consists of Claire Dinshaw ’21, Malavika Kannan ’23, Layo Laniyan ’22, Adrian Liu ’20, Jasmine Liu ’20 and Willoughby Winograd ’22.

Contact the Vol. 257 Editorial Board at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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