Students revolt against the state of higher ed as colleges go remote

Students revolt against the state of higher ed as colleges go remote
New York University Building, photo via Wikimedia Commons.

One morning over my spring break, I woke to screaming from outside my college dorm room window: "We have to move out in two days!"


That absurdly short moving window, it turns out, was real. In the wake of the pandemic, most American colleges opted to move teaching online for the remainder of the semester, while hundreds of thousands of college students were ordered to leave their campus dorm rooms — forcing some back to their childhood bedrooms, others scrambling for alternative accommodation.

The jolting orders to move marked another unwanted anxiety for young people already in the throes of what is, for most, a turbulent time in one's life. For the longest time, college was what I looked to as the turning point when I would truly start living. I had my mind set on going abroad for college, and everything before that felt like an intermission. It represented so much to me because it was symbolic — it was a chance for me to rewrite my personal narrative, and to permanently change the course of my life.

Feeling disengaged with my education in Singapore and hungry for more than what my surroundings could provide, I watched free or low-cost college lectures online at home from professors at UCLA, UC Berkeley, and Michael Sandel's popular justice course at Harvard University — the first Harvard course to be made freely available online.

But now, after almost four years abroad, I'm back in the same bedroom on the opposite side of the world, in an online class at 3:30 a.m.The sticker price of tuition (excluding financial aid and scholarships) at the elite institution that I attend, Sarah Lawrence College in New York, is $56,020 a year. Which makes me wonder: What am I paying for? In other words, what is the value of a college education?

"Zoom university is not worth 50k a year," one New York University student wrote in a petition for partial tuition refund that has more than 11,700 signatures so far.

Many students share the same sentiment, and some are even taking legal action against their colleges and universities. A wave of class-action lawsuits from students at Columbia UniversityUniversity of Miami, Drexel University, and Pace University have been filed to demand partial refunds for the spring semester.

A college degree: a "signal" to employers

These lawsuits reveal very different arguments about what the value of a college degree is. One claim is that "the value of any degree issued on the basis of online or pass/fail classes will be diminished." This claim rests on the idea of job-market signaling in economics, in which the value of a degree comes from the positive signal that it communicates to an employer—for example, tenacity in sticking it out to obtain that education credential, or intrinsic intelligence in navigating the college maze.

Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University and the author of The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, is a proponent of this idea of signaling in higher education. "A lot of the reason why education helps you in the real world is not that you've learned useful skills, but that it's given you a certification. It's given you a stamp on your forehead saying that you're a superior worker. I say, a lot of what people are paying for is actually that signal," Caplan said in an interview with Salon.

In his latest column for The New York Times, Ron Lieber argued that "most people send their children off to college to accomplish one (or all) of at least three goals: They want to stuff their heads so full of knowledge that they explode and then need reassembly into new and improved adult brains. They want their kids to find their people — the friends and mentors who will carry them through life. Finally, there is the credential: A diploma that means something to those who see it on a résumé, one that may also offer a chance to jump a rung or two up the economic ladder."

"The coronavirus shows no sign of diminishing this year's undergraduate degrees as a credential. But for the other two goals, the status quo can fall short," Lieber added.

Scott Carlson, a journalist who has written about higher education for more than two decades at The Chronicle of Higher Education, believes that the biggest loss in value of college degrees won't be its diminished signal. "I don't specifically know how Drexel or some of these other schools are going to be issuing their degrees, but they're not going to stamp on the degree that 'oh, you only got an online education,' right? No employer is going to say, 'did you learn part of your degree online?' So in terms of the signaling, I don't think it's a problem," Carlson told Salon in an interview.

The in-person aspect to learning

The disparity in the quality of instruction with the shift to online classes has students questioning what they're paying for in a college degree. For students in the creative and performing arts, that difference is particularly jarring given how much of their learning comes from hands-on, in-person teaching, and using equipment which are now not available to them.

"I know some people taking a sophomore level class where they're supposed to shoot five films, and now they're allowed to shoot on their own personal equipment, which NYU said is going to level the playing field. Which is insane, because some people have 50-thousand-dollar camera and some people don't even own a phone with a camera," NYU Tisch senior Laine Elliot told Salon.

"If I happen to own a DSLR [camera] and I use that, and my classmate's using their iPhone 6, it's not the same platform at all," said Boscov, who is majoring in Film and Television. "They're learning about the equipment online via Zoom and not hands-on now, which is basically what you can get from a free YouTube video," Elliot continued.

What about students not in the creative and performing arts? "Even if I wasn't receiving an education that wasn't so equipment based and hands-on learning based, I would still feel this education that I'm receiving online is not equal, because you're still in a situation where it's very difficult to connect with your professor in these online classes. It's very difficult to foster discussion. And when discussion does happen, it can often be very stilted and confusing, just because of the nature of interacting with people through a webcam call," said Kaylee Scinto, a senior at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

New York University is being sued by Christina Rynasko, a mother of a student at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Rynasko filed a $5 million class-action lawsuit on April 24, arguing that the shift to online classes is not worth the tuition she paid for the semester. This lawsuit comes on the heels of the NYU Tisch Partial Refund Effort, a petition appealing to the Board of Trustees to offer a partial tuition refund for Tisch students.

The Tisch School of the Arts is the most expensive college at NYU — tuition is approximately $3,000 more for a regular course load per semester as compared to other colleges at NYU, and Film Production students must pay laboratory equipment insurance fees of approximately $879 per semester.

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