An Open Letter to the University of Kentucky

To whom it concerns —

My name is Noah Weidner and I’m a senior at the University of Kentucky studying strategic communication. Like most people, I love my university and I want my university to be successful, impactful, accessible, and progressive. I am a proud Wildcat and I always will be. This makes me all the more passionate about being a stark critic of my university and what it is doing for its students.

In the Spring 2020 semester, thousands of colleges across the United States moved to purely online instruction after the outbreak of COVID-19. In the Fall of 2020, a large percentage of post-secondary institutions look to return to in-person instruction. For in-person instruction to happen, these schools have to abide by CDC and social distancing guidelines.

Most universities have approached these guidelines by shifting to remote or ‘hybrid’ options. Hybrid refers to a mix between in-person and online instruction. One proposed method of administering classes in a hybrid manner is having certain students physically attend a class on one day, and then attend online on another day. This alternating fashion aims to cut down on the number of people in a classroom, which should make crowded spaces more capable of honouring CDC guidelines.

The coronavirus has helped highlight deficiencies in our society and systems. That is the case in education as well. A grey area has arisen in higher ed as to how students are paying for college, and what they’re paying to get. It is a discussion we should be having right now — and this problem is not exclusive to just my college. However, I emailed the office of the president at the University of Kentucky to express my concerns specifically about how we are tackling online and physical classes in the Fall and the future. As of this writing, his office has ignored that email. So, in an effort to highlight these meaningful problems affecting my college, I wanted to summarize them in an essay. These issues are three-prong, and I will tackle each separately:

  • I. Purely online courses are NOT included in the price of tuition (they are a separate charge.)
  • II. Hybrid courses are effectively online courses, but assessed at the rate of tuition.
  • III. The university is charging in-person rates for instruction which is at least partially done online.

I. Online Classes and Tuition

As it stands, the University of Kentucky does not include online courses in the price of tuition. This is relatively unorthodox. Many schools price tuition at a per-credit hour rate. One school in our conference, the University of Missouri-Columbia, prices both in-person and online classes at the same per-credit hour rate for residents. For non-residents, a premium might be assessed.

This stands in contrast to Kentucky — which offers what it refers to as a “distance learning fee.” The distance learning fee is a flat rate for both residents and non-residents, and is only affected by whether or not you’re taking a course on campus. This sounds pretty great (and the price is!) until you consider that Kentucky is charging for online courses separate from tuition.

Put yourself in the shoes of a full-time resident student: you would have to pay $6,180 for tuition, which covers 12 hours of “in-person instruction.” If you enrolled in a 100% purely online course for the Fall semester, you would have to pay for it separately — for one course, this would add over $1,800 to your bill.

This was already ‘the law of the land’ before the coronavirus. The distance learning fee was introduced two years ago, much to the dismay of students. To offset the cost of online learning fees, the university introduced grants meant to erode the impact — but regardless, many full-time students are paying more than they should for courses. There is no erasing that. This leads to our next point.

II. Hybrid Courses are partially online, but are included in tuition

In Fall 2020, the University of Kentucky returns to in-person instruction. As noted above, most universities will shift to hybrid course offerings. However, almost all classes will be required to offer an online/remote option for attendance to students who are quarantining, immunocompromised, or have other reasons. This is a total ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ — on one hand, students might attend half of a course in-person. Others might attend entirely online. This is where the grey area continues to grow.

These hybrid course offerings are assessed as part of tuition, despite the fact their purely online alternative is not. If you attend a hybrid course entirely remotely, you are effectively paying 2x more than the online learning rate. This is extremely problematic and inconsistent, especially to students who will have no choice but to attend entirely remotely.

To make an example of my situation, I am in my third and final year at UK. I am a non-resident student who needs a total of 15 hours to graduate… 9 in the Fall and 6 in the Spring. If I chose to attend all my courses remotely/purely online, I should theoretically only pay the online learning rate ($570 * 15 = $8550).

However, this is not the case in practice. The university is suggesting that if I pay for an in-person course, I should be assessed the cost of that course in-person — regardless of if it is hybrid or moved purely online ($1,256 * 15 = $18,840). This is more than twice the cost for the same courses and quality of education! In other words, you are crossing your fingers for purely online instruction — because there is no incentive to return to in-person instruction unless you plan to take 14+ hours a semester! This is one such scenario, but one which illustrates the shortcomings in the current system.

III. Is Hybrid Technically Online?

The last point deserves special distinction. Students are paying for in-person instruction, but a large percentage of the course offering is being done online. For that reason, we should stand to see tuition or cost of classes reduced, yes? Wrong. The University of Kentucky leveraged a tuition raise to offset perceived shortcomings in the budget. This raises the question — what are we really paying for?

The university has priced its online courses at $570.00 per credit hour (or $601.00 per credit hour if you take at least one class on campus). Meanwhile, physically offered courses cost a variable rate — but considerably more. I think everyone understands that the reason that my school (and others) are doing this is because of shortcomings in funding. However, this is where this case is really solidified.

If the University of Kentucky offers physical classes online, but refuses to honour online courses in the price of tuition, then what set of standards or rules is making these things mutually exclusive? In my eyes, some students in Fall 2020 are going to pay more money just to take a course that is labeled: ONLINE. Others are going to pay considerably more just to take a course that is suggested to be in-person, but administrators are already largely operating under the assumption that a coronavirus outbreak will mean students going home in October or November.

Actionable Ways to Solve the Problem

There are many issues which face administrators and leaders at universities, but these invented problems should not be among them. There are seldom any easy fixes to complex issues, but this problem has relatively easy solution:

  • Colleges should include online courses in the price of tuition.
  • If the cost of online courses and in-person courses was identical, we would not need to have this discussion.
  • If students paid a premium to take a purely online course in Spring 2020, they should be refunded some portion of that premium.

The University of Kentucky’s Summer semester was held entirely online — and the cost of these courses was kept consistent. This is how it should be! However, these issues are ones which affect the balance sheet for institutions mostly concerned about the short-term. My college is understandably concerned about the possibility of budget constraints leading to layoffs. However, failure to take a ‘tech-forward’ position and be intentionally progressive will lead to greater damage later. It’s my position — and those of technocrats — that all post-secondary institutions would have to be delusional to think that the coronavirus is not going to give rise to more disruption and innovation in the education space. Not only will more universities pivot to offering courses online through sites like Coursera and Edx, but more edutech startups in that vein will disrupt education.

It is my desire that somebody relevant or important will read this essay and think: “all of this makes sense and we’d like to call attention to it.” Or, better yet, a member of the board of trustees at my university (and others in a similar position) will be inspired enough to take up the torch of true leadership on this issue. 2020 has offered perspective; it has offered the unprecedented opportunity to reflect. I think my university needs to think about where they stand with regards to accessibility in education. Standing in opposition to accessibility to education is antithetical to any university’s values.

My school’s administration has suggested that the best insurance against uncertainty is a college degree, but I think the best insurance against uncertainty is preparation. We now have the luxury of foresight as it pertains to planning for what is ahead of us. I hope MY university will consider taking this common-sense first step towards true leadership.

Written by

CEO, wave.ac

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