Simply put, the University owes every student a tuition refund. Prorated room and board do not suffice. More than 80 percent of our peers at Stanford Graduate School of Business and a growing majority at the Wharton School have already petitioned to rectify the poor academic environment afforded by Zoom. We have every reason to follow their lead.
In these desperate economic times, the administration’s common refrain that tuition fees make the budget whole sounds tone-deaf at best. Without hedge funds or endowments, our families unquestionably now need the cash more than the University. Like airlines and commercial landlords facing stark financial realities, Yale owes fee refunds for unprovided services. The ivory tower is not exempt.
These unprovided services lie at the crux of our academic experience. We undoubtedly derive much, if not most, of our tuition’s value from everyday learning and interactions, inside and outside the classroom, in a safe environment on campus. We cannot dictate that our tuition go towards teaching and research instead of administration and buildings. At the very least then, we should retain the right to a refund if the University’s product fails to resemble its advertisement.
We have many reasons to believe the University’s makeshift transition to online classes would go poorly. Professors faced insufficient prior notice. Online teaching requires impractically high levels of tailored preparation and polished presentation to maintain student engagement. Nonverbal cues cannot guide lectures over the computer. These constraints yield less effective teaching, adding marginal value over online texts and free lectures for students.
Accordingly, syllabi have shrunk. Lecturers fall back on reading textbooks and slideshows aloud. Drop-in office hours turn into limited appointments. Timezones, COVID-like symptoms and financial problems depress classroom participation. Passive recordings cannot substitute for spontaneous feedback and questions. Erratic internet connections make Zoom unusable. Phone and email alternatives fail to approximate back-and-forth classroom dynamics. Students have no choice but to play along.
Extracurricular groups cannot convene, and dinners lack conversations. Labs, equipment and library resources remain inaccessible. Hands-on coursework has vanished. Student researchers lack research. Artists lose audiovisual details to microphones and cameras. Social events, parties and commencement face indefinite delays. First-year counselors no longer remain a door knock away. College teas resemble Instagram Stories. Fellowships and grants experience postponements. Networking and career fairs remain scarce.
The University trivializes our on-campus experiences by failing to acknowledge what our tuition pays for. Tuition does not care about the quantity or quality of classes we take. Tuition fundamentally affords us the right to benefit from the academic environment on campus. Room and board realize this right physically, nothing more. No one paid $30,000 for “Yale, Khan Academy edition” this term. The University should not pretend otherwise.
Even if legally tenable, the University’s refusal to refund tuition fees remains morally questionable. Chief Investment Officer David Swensen critiqued the administration for spending beyond its means in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. Financial aid for international students suffered. New buildings and administrative hires embellish resumes but strain balance sheets. Students should not foot the bill to cover the administration’s insufficient plans for a rainy day. The University’s zero-sum budgetary justifications smack of negligence at best and greed at worst.
“Financial Services,” Section D.14 in the undergraduate regulations stipulates refunds when Yale “suspend[s] University programs and operations.” Locked facilities and inaccessible resources suggest the University functionally satisfies this condition. Administrators insist otherwise. Yale College Council must act. The University must reconsider tuition. Withholding refunds reminds future alumni they made their first donations involuntarily.
GEORGE CHEN is a junior in Pauli Murray College. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org .