Many consumer protection laws make sure that if people don’t receive what they paid for, they get their money back. Should that apply to higher education?
That’s the case being made by a new “tuition payer bill of rights” backed by a coalition of nonprofits and think tanks from across the political spectrum. It makes six demands aimed at empowering students to decide how much to pay for college and making sure they get their money’s worth.
The first proposed entitlement is the one most tied to current events: the right “to be refunded for services not rendered.”
It’s a direct reference to the case many students and families have made, since the pandemic prompted campuses to close in the spring, that colleges should return money paid for room and board services that went unused. Students have filed hundreds of lawsuits demanding these kinds of refunds, which sometimes even extend to requests for returned tuition checks.
The other five proposed rights draw on older ideas about affordability and value that advocates hope feel more urgent as students gear up for an uncertain fall semester. But organizers also want this bill of rights to start a movement that outlasts the current crisis moment.
“This is not about a one-time reduction in fees. It’s restructuring the relationship between a student and his or her institution,” says James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, the nonprofit advocacy organization that is taking the lead in promoting the bill of rights. “This is a consumer-protection agenda. It is intended to give more choice to those who are ultimately paying the bills.”
Indeed, the campaign’s goals range from protecting students from pandemic cutbacks—such as the supposedly “lesser quality instruction” colleges are now offering virtually—to exempting students entirely from college services they don’t want to use and textbooks they don’t want to pay for.
Some observers unaffiliated with the campaign expressed support for making the costs of college tuition and the worth of a bachelor’s degree more transparent.
“Yes, students are definitely consumers in need of consumer protection,” says Sandy Baum, senior fellow for the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute and professor emerita of economics at Skidmore College. “That principle is absolutely correct.”
But they also acknowledged that the pandemic era is a tricky period for making demands of colleges, many of which are facing budget shortfalls and large new expenses.
“It’s easier to state these principles than it is to actually find workable solutions,” Baum says. “This is such a complicated, difficult time for everyone, including both students and families, and colleges and universities, that it seems unrealistic to think you can just make a rule that says colleges need to give students money and have that solve the problem.”
From Lawsuits to a List of Rights
This spring, when newspapers started publishing articles about college students seeking refunds, Toscano paid attention. He sensed that the requests, some of which morphed into lawsuits, revealed a growing dissatisfaction with the traditional relationship between colleges and students.
It’s easier to state these principles than it is to actually find workable solutions."
“There’s a reason why these students en masse felt like litigation was their only recourse,” Toscano says.
The former community college vice president and his team tracked down about a dozen students from news stories and invited them to join a conference call. They asked the students a question, Toscano says: “What could your institutions do, what assurances could they give you as this consumer of higher education, that would make your investment in higher education feel more safe?”
The answers that students gave inspired the tuition payer bill of rights.
In addition to tuition refunds, the list also proposes that students have rights to “no-cost alternatives to textbooks,” to be informed of the “earnings premium” that a degree confers, and to address college governing boards before decisions are made.
The list seems to juxtapose principles that aren’t directly related except for the fact that they all affect students, says Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. And they’re mostly not new concepts.
Toscano’s organization “has been supporting some of these ideas for a while. But they are leading with the right to benefits and refunds. That is something no one was considering a year ago,” Kelchen says. “They are using the pandemic to help support the rest of the policy agenda.”
Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust is not alone in calling for more transparency from colleges. It’s a cause that’s caught on at the federal level. In 2019, at least three bills with bipartisan support were introduced into Congress on the topic, including one to regulate the information colleges publish about the average yearly price charged to first-time, full-time undergraduate students receiving student aid; one to require colleges to provide students with more information about multi-year tuition and fees; and one to establish a higher education data-tracking system intended in part to “provide more accurate, complete, and customizable information for students and families making decisions about postsecondary education.”
Similar to that proposed legislation, the tuition payer bill of rights has support from “ideologically diverse groups,” Toscano says, including the conservative-leaning James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and the self-described “center-left” think tank Third Way. “That’s an indication to us that what we did here is just common sense.”
But Toscano doesn’t see the tuition payer bill of rights as a set of recommendations for new government regulations, nor the proposed federal laws as replacements for his declaration.
“We are seeking a good faith effort by institutions to respond to consumer needs and make voluntary changes,” he explains, such as discounting tuition rates for the virtual college experience that many institutions are offering this fall.
College leaders may support some of the proposed rights, Kelchen believes, such as increasing transparency around tuition costs and making free course materials more widely available.
But some institutions are hesitant to give refunds, he adds: “The issue is, does that include refunding some tuition if they have to go back online?”
Questioning College Services
The proposed bill of rights raises questions about just how far student choice can and should shape the college experience once the pandemic subsides. For example, the second item calls for the “right to opt out of paying fees levied for collegiate athletics, recreation, and non-essential services.”
Toscano declined to clarify further what other college services he considers non-essential.
“I think those are decisions that should be up to those direct stakeholders: students, faculty, administrators, trustees,” he says. “If there’s going to be a price increase, be clear about what it is for. Then give students a choice.”
“If there’s going to be a price increase, be clear about what it is for. Then give students a choice.”
That idea assumes students know which college functions are truly “essential.” Some might be surprised by research that suggests extracurricular activities play an important role in keeping students enrolled in college. A study of nearly 1,000 initiatives at more than 55 colleges found that academic advising meetings, Greek life, supplemental instruction, scholarships and tutoring are the programs that correlate most with improved student retention rates.
“In the first few years, non-academic supports tend to be really important and have more impact. After the fourth or fifth term, academic supports tend to kick in,” Mark Milliron, former chief learning officer and co-founder of Civitas Learning, which conducted the study, told EdSurge in September. “We are assuming colleges are a collection of classes. Colleges at their best are a family of experiences that include classes.”
Students may not be eager to pay line-item fees for particular programs like athletics, but may also be unhappy if those were scrapped, Kelchen points out. He adds that some services that may not seem critical to everyone all the time—like a health center—are there for when students do need them.
“The idea that students could pick and choose what they’re going to pay for—there’s a real limit to how far you can go with that before you end up with a really impossible situation, like where low-income students can’t participate in activities or take advantage of certain things,” Baum says. “Imagine paying to go to the tutoring center.”
Still, Toscano says, why should a student who has to seek financial aid for college be forced to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for services he or she considers extras?
“We hear from students with low incomes and moderate incomes who say, ‘If I had the chance to save money, I’d do it,’” he says. “We should trust what those who pay the bills tell us.”