In many ways, COVID-19 transformed college into an unrecognizable institution: internships and trips were canceled, the once bustling campuses became quiet and deserted, and lecture halls were replaced with computer screens. Yet one thing remained the same: the cost. Despite largely remote instruction, Penn joined a long list of colleges that elected to freeze tuition instead of lowering it, capping the cost at $53,166. Ultimately, the full cost of a Penn education in the 2020-2021 school year came out to be $76,826.
In the face of such widespread economic crises, the cost of college feels particularly outrageous. A number of students nationwide actually filed class action lawsuits against their colleges in response, arguing that the exorbitantly high price tag was unjustifiable. Not only did students not have access to essential campus resources like libraries, labs, and gyms, but many argued that the general quality of education decreased — despite professors’ best efforts, online classes couldn’t hold a candle to in-person instruction. So, if we’re not paying for the quality of our education or campus life, what are we paying for?
The pandemic has highlighted the need for financial transparency throughout higher education. College is an investment, and a costly one at that — in the period between 1989 and 2016, tuition rates doubled, growing eight times faster than real wage growth. As a result, our generation is significantly worse off when it comes to paying for college than the generations prior. And these high tuition rates can be debilitating. In the past decade, student debt has increased by over 100%, reaching a record $1.56 trillion in 2020. If students are expected to take on such an immense, life-changing investment, the burden ought to fall on Penn to show exactly what that investment is going towards.
While student frustrations around a lack of administrative transparency is not a new occurrence, this past year, administrative budgeting changes have been especially shrouded in secrecy. For example, according to Student Registration and Financial Services, the general fee typically funds on-campus services such as recreation centers and student activities. But despite remote instruction and limited access to campus facilities, the general fee was only reduced by ten percent. Students who opted to remain at home both semesters still had to pay the $5,354 general fee. First-years were also startled by the administrations’ recent announcement to impose a second-year dining plan requirement on students. Even though this plan is meant to “alleviate concerns about the potential of food insecurity,” the dining plan only offers one new option, priced at around $4,000. Students, indignant at this sudden additional expense, dubbed it a “blatant cash grab.”
Penn’s decision to not reduce tuition came at a time when the pandemic was placing intense financial stress on families across the globe. In the absence of rent relief, consistent stimulus payments, and general government support, many families were left vulnerable. The Washington Post reported that, in the past year, college enrollment plummeted among low-income students. Despite this, first-generation low-income students at Penn noted that after the pandemic, a lack of communication and financial support left their enrollment hanging in the balance. Small, accumulated expenses weren’t accounted for in financial aid packages, and students cited a lack of consistency from Student Financial Services in responding to their concerns.
Especially for a high-profile school such as Penn, limiting students’ ability to properly anticipate the costs of college is irresponsible at best and actively deceptive at worst. Rising costs coupled with lack of clarity surrounding tuition prices and campus fees impedes a student's ability to plan appropriately for college. Opening up avenues of communication between the administration and the student body would make strides towards ensuring they remain equitable even in times of financial struggle, especially when it comes to supporting FGLI students. College costs should not be considered a burden that students are forced to bear with no second thoughts — if students are going to be taking on thousands of dollars in debt, Penn ought to clearly define where that money is going.
The steps towards transparency would be simple: ensure incoming students are aware of the cost of attending and of the financial aid that would be provided to them, and ensure that current students know exactly where their money is going. If students were aware of what expenses such as tuition, general fees, and additional dining plans were going towards, it would help hold the administration accountable on their budgeting decisions. It’s hard to make college more equitable when students are in the dark about what they’re fighting for. If changes must be made to the university budget, these decisions must be made in tandem with the students instead of behind their backs in order to decrease confusion and frustration.
Financial transparency is not just a matter of goodwill, but necessity. Penn has nothing to lose from additional transparency, and it would make a significant step towards making higher education more accessible, fair, and trustworthy.
TAJA MAZAJ is a College first year from King of Prussia, Pa. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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