Penn is among only three Ivy League institutions to decrease tuition amid a fully remote semester — but some students say this change does not go far enough to make up for the decreased quality of remote learning.
After switching to a completely remote semester, Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett froze tuition – keeping it at the same value as the previous academic year – and decreased the fall general fee by 10%. Penn tuition for the 2021 academic year was initially supposed to increase by 3.9% after a February Board of Trustees meeting, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, the fall semester tuition will remain at $25,578. The pandemic also led to a 10% reduction in the fall general fee, leaving the fee at $2,311 instead of $2,677.
The general fee covers a variety of undergraduate resources, according to Student Registration and Financial Service's website, including counseling and wellness, multicultural resource centers, student activities, recreation and fitness, career services, and learning support.
“Despite the escalating costs of providing a safe and meaningful educational program, we recognize and appreciate the financial challenges incurred by many students in our community as a result of the pandemic,” the administration’s statement read. “As a result, we have determined to make tuition and fee adjustments for the fall semester.”
Last spring, some students were outraged when Penn did not offer refunds after moving classes entirely online for the second half of the semester. Master’s student in the Graduate School of Education, Asha Smith, who has now graduated, filed a lawsuit seeking a prorated tuition and fee reimbursement from the University.
In an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian, Smith wrote that while she was “delighted” by the reduction in tuition for the fall, it is “relatively minor in its financial consequences for students who are often borrowing tens of thousands of dollars per semester.”
Smith still believes that the students should receive a refund for tuition and fees for the spring semester, and feels Penn’s reduction in fall tuition means that the school acknowledges that online schooling should not cost the same as in-person.
“It is only fair for Penn to acknowledge and act on unjustly keeping students' dollars when they could reap all of the benefits the school has to offer. I am hopeful that the leadership of the university will prioritize people over money and meet the demands from the Penn community,” she wrote.
Though no one has sued Penn over fall tuition, many believe the freeze and general fee decrease are not enough, especially because students will not be able to use certain on-campus resources.
“It's great that the school is listening to students' concerns, but at the same time, they're having us pay the same price of the year when we were mostly in like a normal schedule and like normal classes. So it's ridiculous to have students pay that price when we're not even on campus anymore,” College junior Alyssa Gonzalez said.
College junior Amira Chowdhury echoed Gonzalez, citing increased challenges for students who identify themselves as first-generation and low-income. Chowdury, who identifies as a FGLI student, thinks Penn should have done a “dramatic decrease” in tuition instead of freezing tuition at last year’s rate.
“I think what Penn did was criminal, in my view, and I say that because they know full well that the online nature of fall semester does just not in any way shape or form replicate the experience students engage with during the typical school year, whether it be on-campus activities, all the resources on campus."
The Class Board of 2021 started a Change.org petition that calls for Gutmann, the Deans, and members of the Board of Trustees to decrease tuition for the fall semester. The petition has just over 1600 signatures at the time of publication.
The petition asks the school to refund “a greater portion of the tuition,” or at least a refund that covers the technology fee, the clinical fee, and all of the general fees for the fall semester. It also calls for the University to subsidize nonrefundable airline tickets that students purchased before learning Penn closed campus, as well as help for students bound to off-campus leases by providing wifi, financial assistance with rent, and “ensuring food and housing for students living on or off campus [who] have COVID.”
According to 2021 Class Board Executive Vice President and Nursing senior Anthony Scarpone-Lambert, the board hopes to send the petition to important administrators such as President Gutmann and various deans once it reaches over 2,000 signatures. He thinks that Penn should acknowledge and take responsibility for the fact that there will be students returning to West Philadelphia, especially those who have off-campus leases.
"It seems a little bit outrageous to charge students the same amount of funding, or the same rampant of tuition that they did last year," Scarpone-Lambert said. "It's just so obvious that even if things are virtual, it's still a sub-optimal college semester."
Within the Ivy League, only Penn, Princeton University, and Columbia University have reduced their tuition in some capacity. Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, and Yale University have all increased their yearly prices. Unlike Penn, Brown, Yale, Dartmouth, and Cornell still plan to bring students back to campus in some capacity.
Princeton announced a 10% tuition decrease for all undergraduate students, which is the least expensive option in the Ivy League – excluding Cornell’s State Contract Colleges – at $24,251. Columbia halted a 2% tuition increase, bringing the total 2020-2021 undergraduate tuition rate flat to last year's value. Even so, Columbia’s $29,460 fall tuition continues to be the second-highest in the Ivy League. Brown currently offers the most expensive fall tuition rate at $29,627, a 3.75% increase from last year.
Still, Chowdhury said that she does not think Penn should be applauded for being one of the few Ivies to decrease tuition, especially because it has one of the highest endowments of the group.
“Penn is doing not even the bare minimum here,” she said. “Penn decreasing tuition should be a standard given protocol, given its endowment compared to the endowment of other Ivy Leagues as well as other schools in general.”