You’ve probably noticed this semester looks just a tad different. Nearly everything about the Emory experience has changed, undergraduate tuition, however, hasn’t.
In response to the dramatic downgrade from in-person to virtual learning, students at over 100 colleges have filed lawsuits demanding partial refunds, protesting that remote learning was an “inadequate substitute for the tens of thousands of dollars students paid in tuition.” Last spring, Emory student Willa DeMasi (21Ox, 23C) joined them when she filed a lawsuit against Emory. While Emory responded with partial refunds in unused campus and housing fees, students did not receive a tuition reduction. With the learning process now taking place almost exclusively in makeshift study spaces in living rooms rather than in classrooms, remote instruction can hardly be considered the same quality as in-person teaching. Accordingly, Emory should not only address this semester’s shortfalls but also work toward improving the endowment system that fails to justly compensate students.
At Emory, both on-campus and online, students are receiving a second-rate version of the college experience for which they paid. Campus resources and activities once integral to college student life, such as intramural sports, clubs, academic advising, tutoring services and social activities, are either limited to a meager screen or nonexistent. Academics have become detached and solitary. Paying full tuition for a Zoom-based education feels roughly equivalent to paying for access to Khan Academy.
Since students are no longer receiving the educational experience Emory’s tuition once covered, the current semester’s many deficiencies merit a sympathetic response from the University. However, Emory’s failure to lower tuition is not only completely unjustified but also illuminates a larger issue concerning the inflexibility of university endowments.
Colleges with massive endowments, such as Emory, should be able to reduce tuition for their students following the circumstances caused by the pandemic. However, given the uncompromising nature of college endowments, students should not anticipate a tuition reduction and should instead demand reform of the limitations that hinder the operations of college endowments.
As of 2019, Emory’s endowment totaled $7.94 billion, but using that money is much more complex than tapping into a trust fund. College endowments are extraordinarily rigid and ill-suited to handle emergencies such as those caused by COVID-19. According to Liz Clark, vice president for policy and research for the National Association of College and University Business Officers, endowments are designed to be used “in perpetuity,” meaning that colleges can’t spend too much during any given academic year or on any particular department. Doing so risks “legal jeopardy with their donors, who expect them to maintain those funds for the long-term” and often stipulate how the money is distributed or if it is to be invested instead. In fact, the overwhelming majority of endowment money is invested. As a result, redesignating endowment funds is often costly, time-intensive and sometimes even contractually forbidden as colleges are “legally obligated to adhere to the terms of gifts that have been contributed as endowment.”
Emory’s endowment is no different. Although Emory’s restricted endowment makes a tuition reduction highly unlikely, the implications are distressing in light of the U.S. economy’s tribulations. As the U.S. stands at an 8.4% unemployment rate as of August 2020, families have endured financial struggles which could render more students eligible for substantial financial aid. If restrictions on Emory’s endowment are unable to meet student financial aid demands, consequences far surpassing unfair tuition prices will result as student financial aid packages may be severely impacted and some students may not even be able to continue attending Emory.
While Emory must oblige the contractual agreements and legal expectations set in place by endowment donors, members of the Emory community can and should voice their disapproval of the heavy restrictions that prevent the endowment from mitigating students’ financial needs. The pandemic is far from over, and the endowment’s shortcomings suggest an ill-fated trajectory of financial burdens for all students. Students must decide whether they are willing to put up with an outdated system that demands unfair tuition prices at the expense of their own financial stability.
Juliana Martinez (24C) is from Angwin, California.