Georgia college students make case for cut in online tuition costs

Many students from the Emory University School of Law are upset that their tuition has increased though their classes will be online this semester and they won't have opportunities that usually come along with in-person learning. ERIC STIRGUS / ERIC.STIRGUS@AJC.COM
Many students from the Emory University School of Law are upset that their tuition has increased though their classes will be online this semester and they won't have opportunities that usually come along with in-person learning. ERIC STIRGUS / ERIC.STIRGUS@AJC.COM

Many Georgia college students whose schools have switched to online learning for the fall semester are pleading for tuition decreases, echoing calls by students across the country who say the online instruction is not what they paid for.

The students say online classes omit some key elements of in-person learning, such as face-to-face meetings with instructors that allow for greater dialogue than online conversations — and important networking that could lead to a job upon graduation.

Locally, the most vocal complaints are coming from Emory University law school students. More than 300 of them signed a petition noting their tuition has increased while the university froze tuition for undergraduate students.

“We’re losing a lot of informal opportunities that we typically get through our tuition dollars,” said Maggie Clark, a third-year Emory law school student who is president of its student bar association. “We’re missing out on a lot of networking events, seeing visiting speakers because part of what our tuition dollars goes to is a lot of the in-person events that now upperclassmen cannot attend.”

Emory is offering $1,000 tuition assistance awards to returning law school students to help cover the $1,750 increase. Law school tuition is nearly $60,000. Emory has waived some student fees and is reassessing financial aid if students have experienced changes in economic status, the university said in a statement.

“Emory’s commitment to provide students with an excellent education and support them as they progress toward earning a degree has not changed,” part of the statement said. “Our tuition covers the Emory experience, in person or remote, and still yields the academic experience and credits toward an Emory diploma that we know will enhance the lives and livelihoods of our graduates.”

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The dispute is part of a debate occurring on many college campuses nationwide about tuition for online learning. Many schools have decided to teach online only as COVID-19 cases have increased in Georgia and other states. Students in some states have said they will withhold their tuition in protest.

The Emory student petition notes several prominent law schools, such as Harvard, have either frozen their tuition or offered more financial assistance. In Georgia, Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse and Spelman colleges cut their tuition by 10% after switching late last month to online learning for the fall semester, which begins Wednesday at those schools. Some students said on social media the tuition decrease was not enough.

Two other private institutions in the Atlanta region that have also switched to online learning this semester, Agnes Scott College and Oglethorpe University, are not lowering their tuition. The University System of Georgia, which is offering various forms of in-person instruction this semester, has frozen tuition for its 26 public colleges and universities.

“It is an ongoing conversation,” Clark, the Emory student, said of tuition discussions nationwide.

In this August 2018 file photo, Rachel de las Casas and Natalia Rosas, incoming first-year students at Agnes Scott College (left to right), talk to the president of the college, Leocadia (Lee) I. Zak, at Agnes Scott College. Though Agnes Scott has switched to online learning for the fall semester, it is not lowering its tuition. JENNA EASON / AJC FILE PHOTO
In this August 2018 file photo, Rachel de las Casas and Natalia Rosas, incoming first-year students at Agnes Scott College (left to right), talk to the president of the college, Leocadia (Lee) I. Zak, at Agnes Scott College. Though Agnes Scott has switched to online learning for the fall semester, it is not lowering its tuition. JENNA EASON / AJC FILE PHOTO

Clark and other students understand the desire for schools to hold classes online to protect students, but they say doing moot court or mock trials online is not the same as it is in person. Emory and the Savannah College of Art & Design are among several schools sued by students during the spring semester for what they say was subpar online instruction.

The Emory case has not gone to trial, while the student who sued SCAD had the case dismissed last month and plans to refile. Many online classes had technical glitches or students had trouble getting a strong internet signal.

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Agnes Scott dean and vice president for academic affairs Christine Cozzens recently discussed the tuition issue and other matters during a virtual forum with about 200 students. The college, she said, did not want to cut services that help students pay for tuition, such as its work-study program, so it is keeping tuition at the total, about $44,000, approved in January. Cozzens also said the college is not investing in its faculty retirement benefit fund until, at least, July 2021, so administrators did not want to cut their pay.

“They’re working more and harder than they normally do,” Cozzens said of faculty.

Agnes Scott’s fall semester for undergraduate students begins Thursday.

Oglethorpe, which begins its fall semester on Sept. 8, said in a statement it plans to offer mentoring and other services in more engaging ways online.

Oglethorpe University is a private, liberal arts college in Brookhaven. Though it has switched to online learning this semester, it is not lowering its tuition. CONTRIBUTED BY JENNI GIRTMAN / ATLANTA EVENT PHOTOGRAPHY
Oglethorpe University is a private, liberal arts college in Brookhaven. Though it has switched to online learning this semester, it is not lowering its tuition. CONTRIBUTED BY JENNI GIRTMAN / ATLANTA EVENT PHOTOGRAPHY

“These offerings will be interdisciplinary and allow students living both on and off campus to develop applied professional skills and build their resume in meaningful and tangible ways,” the college said.

Emory has vowed similar high-quality programs for its law school students, but Clark and others have their doubts. Their skepticism is fueled by what they say is a lack of communication from the Board of Trustees. Clark said the announcement about the restrictions to in-person instruction came after they signed housing leases they cannot break. Emory included disclaimers that fall instruction plans were subject to change.

Emory’s fall semester for most students begins Wednesday.

COLLEGE TUITION

Here’s a breakdown of tuition plans by various Atlanta-area colleges and universities that are conducting online classes for most or all students for the fall semester:

Agnes Scott College: Tuition will remain the same.

Clark Atlanta University: A 10% tuition decrease.

Emory University: A tuition freeze for undergraduate students, but law school students are paying more.

Morehouse College: A 10% tuition decrease.

Oglethorpe University: Tuition will remain the same.

Spelman College: A 10% tuition decrease.