Are We Up Against the Wall Yet, Alma Mater?

If all values are system values, what do we make of trending lawsuits filed by students against their college campuses? Is it something like the demand of an air traveler who gets downgraded from first class to coach? The analogy seems to have merit. At least it reminds us of flying.

Campuses have about five categories of bills they send to students: tuition, student activity fees, parking, meal plans, and housing. Tuition goes to the academic budget. Student activity fees go into the infrastructure of extracurricular life, student organizations, counseling, libraries, health services, etc. In public debate, the term tuition often collapses all five categories into one.

On the more obvious side, meal plans and housing should be refunded if students are ordered to leave campus. But this means that funding for food service workers and housekeeping staff suddenly goes to zero. Bundled with any refund of this type–however obvious–will be a question of layoffs.

Parking also seems like an obvious refundable claim. But again, parking services are self-funded through fees, and any refund is going to delete money that was budgeted for payroll.

Student activity fees get complicated, but the general theme is applicable. Wherever a campus is collecting fees, they are funding staff workers, and wherever fees are refunded, budgets for salaries begin to disappear.

Activity fees are complicated, because many services remain open to students, particularly counseling and emergency services, even if staff are working at a distance.

Which brings us to the difficult question of tuition itself, the money paid for academic, um, tuition. Students are correct to argue that online education is not the full experience of in-person education. For some fields of study, the difference can be a wide one. Drama, fine art, chemistry lab, etc., involve experiences that may be impossible to simulate online.

Students complain on the internet that moving their math classes online was especially difficult, which is an interesting thing to think about. Here we see the value of real-time personal attention to student questions and posture. The teacher can see everyone slumping down and make adjustments on the spot. Eye contact, unmediated by Zoom, is a wonderful teaching tool, and we can thank the pandemic for the crash course in the embodiment of it all. Teaching math is a deeply embodied transaction. Is that why my high school math teachers were coaches, too?

Literature was also mentioned by students on the internet. They missed the spontaneous discussion of the assigned materials, even if they were perfectly suitable for online delivery. Stanley Fish once asked, “is there a text in this class?” It all sounded so postmodern at the time, but here comes the pandemic, and we more plainly see how the text may be a kind of occasion for higher education, but never the education itself. There is a good reason why we continued to hold classes for several centuries, long after the printing press made it possible for everyone to read the books on their own.

As students were abruptly shifted from classroom to laptop, the feel of shock was widely confirmed. It was like being downgraded from first class.

However, we should not let the structure of our rant obscure the value of online education for those who need it most. Think of the soldier overseas, the working mother of three, or the 19-year-old who already has classes on campus plus a job as night clerk at your local hotel. Or perhaps the unemployed worker who wants an educational upgrade right away. Students such as these have competing pressures to consider, and online education is their preferred vehicle.

Two questions are important to ask about the difference between online and in-person instruction. Is there any difference in delivery cost? Did your online literature class leave your professor behind when it moved from class to laptop? Did the academic sector of campus find itself doing less work? Were teachers fired on the spot so that online classes could be lumped together into even more mind-numbing aggregations of distance packages? If the cost of delivering semester credits remained the same, how is it fair to demand refunds of tuition–when tuition is defined as the academic portion of the bill?

The second question is, what choice did the schools have? There are several related questions: If the pandemic made the move to online education necessary, and if online instruction involved the same payroll, and if other students were receiving online instruction by choice prior to the pandemic, just how much money do we think the school should pay back? Should the schools have simply refunded tuition to all classroom enrolled students and stopped trying to help them complete their semester credits?

And if schools have to re-budget their credit-delivery tuition to a lower amount, how do you expect them to make up the difference? Larger class sizes? Fewer instructors? Surely you are not expecting across-the-board cuts to administrative salaries? Do you really think that’s how things work?

At any rate, I think students will likely benefit from the recent right-wing shift in our national courts. There was already a culture war on liberal sentiment, the liberal arts, and liberal education prior to the pandemic. Lawsuits that demand refunds for the academic emergency seem to play into a picture of colleges as elite liberal leeches who probably deserve a whipping of some kind.

Recalling our thesis of system values, the student lawsuits also represent a dialectical moment when higher education in America is viewed increasingly as the student’s problem to finance. The state has been shaving its share of commitment for many decades now–at least since Reaganomics–transforming a system of public finance into a system of student debt, a.k.a neoliberalismo. In this social moment, student lawsuits are social expressions of pushback against this system of values, where Alma Mater, or nurturing mother, is dragged into court for a sad family feud.

Meanwhile, all the student energy directed against local campus administrations has had the effect of deflecting pressure from the national stage just as several trillions of dollars have been allocated for COVID-19 relief. And according to the usual calendar of campus politics, the game is over. Once finals are done and grades are in for the Spring, college student activism usually goes into hibernation for at least several months.

We have seen no evidence that widespread student discontent was ever effectively delivered to the doors of Congress in the form of an appeal for direct federal relief. This may be a failure of media coverage or research on our part. Instead, we have seen Congress allocate modest relief funds for college students and campuses. In an election year, Congress would, in theory, be most susceptible to students organized to advocate and vote. But the pressure was never brought to bear at the Congressional level, where the real money is.

Forbes reporter Adam S. Minsky, Esq., reports that progressive Democrats wanted to award $30,000 in student loan relief across the board. As the final package of the HEROES Act was being negotiated prior to the House vote of May 15, the dollar amount of student loan relief was cut to $10,000, and the scope of relief was restricted to borrowers who demonstrated some defined forms of hardship.

There is money in the House-passed HEROES Act that can flow to public campuses, but the amounts are less than what organized higher ed interests groups had asked for. And this is another sign that the higher education community was unable to mount much of an organized voice at the national level during March, April, or May, preoccupied as they were with the day-to-day work of getting semester credits completed, slashing budgets for the next academic year, and generally contemplating the lifeboat ethics of who gets shoved off.

Meanwhile, back in the nation’s capital, the majority leader of the Senate and the President of the United States both promise that none of this modest HEROES money, in support of the public sector or higher ed, is going to see the light of day. If students are able to claw back funds through lawsuits, and if the HEROES Act dies in the Senate, the legacy of 2020 will be what?

The American tragedy here is that Mencius was correct. The personality of the ruler flows down through the kingdom. We have become a flock of bickering grackles. Above us, we fail to notice if that sky remains devoid of any farsighted, graceful eagle. If all values are system values, what system will we reach for after final grades are in?

Greg Moses is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and a member of the Texas Civil Rights Collective.. Read other articles by Greg, or visit Greg's website.