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Op-eds, Opinions

Carroll ’21: Reducing the pandemic fees is good. Now we need long-term transparency and change.

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Thursday, August 13, 2020

Last week, the Brown Undergraduate Council of Students launched a campaign against what we deemed Brown’s “pandemic fees” and nearly 2,000 Brown community members and concerned parties signed our petition.

Wednesday, Aug. 12, the University responded in an email by waiving “a number of fees for the fall” and reducing fees for students “who are remote and not living in the Providence area … by more than $600.” Both of the pandemic fees called into question by UCS, the remote-learning fee and the leave-taking fee, were removed by the University.

As student body president, I’m sure I speak for all my peers on UCS in sharing how ecstatic and thankful I am that the University decided to accept students’ calls to action. However, this moment should not be lost as an opportunity to push for further financial transparency from the University.

The fees revoked this semester are typically added to students’ bursar accounts with little justification — and in some cases, many do not even know they are paying these fees at all. As much as I commend the University for removing these inequitable fees for this fall, I call upon Brown to provide further clarity and increased financial transparency for the future.

In addition, I ask that the University clarify how the “off-campus housing fee” will be used this semester, as Brown is still charging it to hundreds of Providence locals, on-campus students and off-campus students. The fee generally pays for many in-person services and events that will now possibly be inaccessible to all students this fall given the recent announcement that Brown may remain fully remote.

How On-Campus Students Pay the Remote Learning Fee

While the off-campus housing fee, officially the “non-resident/commuter fee,” was recently removed for remote learners following UCS’s petition and the change to the University’s fall plan, the $920-per-year fee has long been controversial, with the University providing little-to-no clarification as to what the charge pays for. The University has only publicly clarified that the fee covers broad Campus Life Division “services and resources”  with the only examples of these “resources” being “Faunce House, security services and off-campus information and listing services.”

Particularly for “commuters,” students whose families live within 30 miles of campus, it is hard to imagine why those from the local community should pay to live in their own homes, even in another state, with little-to-no access or need to come to campus during remote learning.

Further, what many may not know is that the non-resident fee is typically charged to all students, including those living on campus. For those living in Brown dorms, the fee is hidden in their housing costs and only billed separately when they move off campus. This means most students and families never even know they are paying this fee, which makes it impossible for them to fully understand their bills and advocate for themselves.

This issue will be exacerbated if campus reopens, applying the fee to even greater portions of the Brown community. Students from the Providence community, those stuck in leases and those without a stable home to return to will be the hardest hit by the full fee.

While the lack of transparency surrounding this fee is a general concern, it is even more egregious that students, including those living in the Providence area, will not have access to physical campus services and resources while being charged the full fee. And despite even increasing the fee by 3.72 percent since the last academic year, the University has failed to explain how it plans to provide comparable services online to make the fee worthwhile.

In light of this major accomplishment and the reduction in hundreds of dollars in fees following student activism, it is more important than ever that we push for long-term change and full transparency about where exactly our money is going.

While we don’t know for certain what exactly these “resources and services” are, it’s reasonable to assume that the costs of huge Campus Life events, such as the Student Activities Office’s annual Halloween Extravaganza, were included in that budget. This event, for example, provided hundreds of students all-you-can-eat food and activities like pumpkin decorating and a live haunted house. It is difficult to imagine how a Zoom event, or even a socially-distanced service for 15 people, will cost nearly as much as the dozens of in-person Campus Life events supposedly formerly covered by the fee.

The huge sums of money no longer spent on in-person services should go back to students, including those who are from the local community, are unable to learn remotely or are otherwise unable to return home. This should certainly be repaid at a reasonable rate relative to the reduction in spending on events and other services and the closure of Campus Life community spaces, such as Faunce House and the Brown Center for Students of Color lounges.

If Brown is still charging full price to hundreds of students from the Providence community, those living on campus and local off-campus students, it still needs to be able to explain exactly where our money is going and how students will receive the full benefits of the fee during a pandemic. If Brown cannot explain this, it should not be charging any student increased fees for seemingly decreased services relative to a non-pandemic Brown University experience.

The Larger Problems

Despite significant progress in recent days, there is substantially more the University could do to respond in an equitable manner to this pandemic and the discounted campus and academic experience we will be taking part in. This school year, Brown increased tuition and hiked fees for all students by approximately $3,000 for the academic year. However, prior to UCS’s advocacy, Brown’s only planned fee reduction was waiving the semesterly $33 “recreation fee” for remote students.

Our calls for transparency and a reduction of fees were very reasonable, and we are glad the University thought so, too. But peer institutions have offered their students far more. For example, Princeton, Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University all cut tuition prices by 10 percent. In addition, Penn, which just reversed its decision to bring students back to campus, agreed to not increase its tuition by the pre-planned 3.9 percent. As the pandemic continues, I hope Brown continues to push to keep up with our peers in reducing costs, understanding the tough financial circumstances facing many students and that our experience will not be comparable in a mostly remote environment.

It is certain the University is hurting due to the pandemic, but so are Brown students and families. However, students cannot simply bill more, decrease spending or fall back on a multi-billion dollar endowment.

If the charges billed to students this semester are for legitimate services, the University should take the opportunity to highlight the labor of its employees and demystify the University budget by clearly explaining where our money is going. If it can’t, Brown students and families shouldn’t be footing the bill to cover the University’s losses.

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  1. Thank you Jason for addressing this issue.
    You are right that there is a substantial mis-match between the amounts students are paying, and the paltry reduction in student fees.
    Cristina Paxson will tell you, however, that she has little freedom in cutting fees. With a budget of nearly $1 billion, Brown has a lot of fixed expenses to cover and little freedom to reduce its costs.
    While expenses are fixed, revenues can be quite mobile. In fact, I’ve proposed how Brown can increase its annual revenues by several hundred million dollars. The COVID pandemic makes this more possible, not less.
    By embracing distance learning, Brown can reach out to three key groups: (1) high school students taking AP courses, which can be taught by Brown professors and proctored by Brown students ($100 million/year for 14 courses), (2) distance learning for Brown alums who wish to continue their Brown learning experience ($200 million per year for 30 courses), and (3) offering Brown courses for credit to students aged 22-80 who would probably never physically attend Brown (over $200 million/year).
    These ideas were published in articles in the BDH. Please refer to the following:
    COLUMNS

    Lonergan ’72: What’s the future for professors at Brown?
    By JOHN LONERGAN
    October 7, 2013 6 comments
    Professors now see students free to study under whomever they please and a university that no longer has a monopoly on students’ time and attention.

    COLUMNS

    Lonergan ’72: A vision for Brown admissions
    By JOHN LONERGAN
    September 24, 2013 1 comment
    I propose a system in which tens of millions of students would participate in a Brown education.

    COLUMNS

    Lonergan ’72: How Brown can survive and thrive over next 250
    By JOHN LONERGAN
    September 19, 2013 5 comments
    The University now has the opportunity to lead changes in education that require an effort far more revolutionary than what Magaziner-Maxwell envisioned.

    As Rahm Emmanuel said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. As I learned at McKinsey, a crisis is an opportunity for change.
    If Brown really wants to reduce burdens on students, it should expand its horizons.

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