To support vulnerable students, a tuition decrease is not the answer

July 8, 2020

I don’t often speak about my experience as a first-generation, low-income student at Georgetown. As someone who receives significant support through financial aid and external scholarships, I understand what it means to struggle on our campus. I know what it means to ration the little cash you might have so you can chip in for your friends’ birthdays or buy necessities at the supermarket or make sure you have some left in case something unexpected comes up. 

It’s why I fully understand the intent behind the petition in support of a tuition decrease circulated by students from the Hold Georgetown Accountable campaign. Though the jury is still out on whether planned hybrid-flexible instruction will adequately compare to its in-person version, we cannot deny that a great deal will be lost. Not to mention, the cost of a Georgetown education is among the highest of all its peer institutions. 

And yet, I can’t bring myself to support this move. By supporting a tuition decrease, we put countless faculty and staff members at risk. We deplete already-scant resources that help level the academic and social playing field for socioeconomically disadvantaged students like myself who depend on tuition revenues for funding. Ultimately, we risk undoing much of the progress made over the last five decades towards creating a more diverse and inclusive Georgetown community.  

Even as Georgetown continues with its mostly remote learning plan, faculty and staff need to be paid based on the yearly salary and compensation agreed upon in their contracts. If revenue falls any further, layoffs and long-term furloughs are immediately on the horizon. As President DeGioia noted in a letter to faculty and staff on May 12, the University has indefinitely paused all hiring and salary increases, and suspended contributions to the University retirement plan. Fifty-four members of the University administration have also taken a voluntary salary reduction. These combined measures have provided $100 million to address both the significant shortfall brought on by the spring closure and the projected shortfalls for the rest of the year. The University has also offered voluntary temporary furlough programs for the summer and voluntary temporary salary reductions. Any additional pressure on the University’s finances will likely require even more extensive action to balance the books and will likely impact the quality of our Georgetown education. 

Layoffs and furloughs would most directly affect non-tenured faculty members, who comprise roughly 70 percent of our faculty and lack the job security their tenured colleagues enjoy. The harm would especially be felt by womxn-identifying faculty and faculty of color, who are significantly underrepresented in tenure-track positions and continue to be underrepresented across all types of faculty positions. Studies have long shown that representation in academia greatly benefits students and faculty alike by bringing new perspectives to the table. The loss here would be palpable.

Many defend the notion of a tuition decrease by arguing that this decision would help struggling students. They argue that lowering the cost would aid families that have experienced significant financial disruptions due to the pandemic. However, there exists no evidence to support this. Federal data from universities, like the University of Charleston, that have reduced tuition rates in the past provide no evidence that a reduction in tuition will actually help struggling families. 

The Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) is a measure of a family’s financial security that helps determine one’s eligibility for Federal Work Study, subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and grant programs, like those offered through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act this past spring. Universities can ask families to pay more than the EFC amount stated on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or universities can provide merit-based financial aid that lowers the total expected contribution, but universities cannot generally decrease a student’s EFC, as calculated based on financial need, due to restrictions and guidelines that govern those programs. 

To illustrate, imagine a student who has an EFC and a university-calculated contribution totaling $18,500 per semester. Suppose the student is not selected to be on campus in the fall and their cost of attendance for the semester is the cost of tuition, $28,000. They might receive some Georgetown resources ($8,500) to cover costs. If Georgetown were to reduce tuition by 20 percent from $28,000 to $22,400 a semester, as one proponent recently articulated they should in an interview with The Hoya, the student’s financial contribution would not change at all, as they ostensibly could still afford to contribute that amount towards their education. Georgetown would maintain the $18,500 student contribution and simply reduce the aid that they would normally provide. The aid Georgetown provides the student would drop from $8,500 to just $3,900 a semester, a 55 percent decrease. 

In essence, given the same fixed family contribution, a reduced tuition price will result in lower determined need and less aid. This means that only the wealthiest families that have not experienced economic disruption would experience the tangible benefits of a tuition reduction.

Of course, this scenario isn’t perfect. Financial aid is never calculated perfectly, and many families have experienced major disruptions due to the pandemic. The answer, however, is not to reduce tuition by 20 percent, which would reduce revenues and shrink the total aid available to students. We should instead demand that the University allocate a greater share of its current budget toward financial aid and temporarily reduce the funds going towards capital improvements and expansions. The University should also engage donors and alumni to expand financial resources for struggling students. Finally, the University must allow for a more extensive appeals process that can review new financial data and more information regarding a family’s financial situation than was typically allowed in the past. 

Beyond financial aid, any reduction in Georgetown’s tuition would actually hurt the very institutions that are designed to support the needs of marginalized and low-income students on campus. Important spaces, like the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access (CMEA), Health Education Services (HES), the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, the Women’s Center, Georgetown Scholars Program (GSP), and Community Scholars Program (CSP), will likely experience reductions in university funding, in addition to the aforementioned staff furloughs and salary reductions. 

Additionally, Counseling and Psychiatric Services and the Student Health Center, neither of which will charge students for services through Fall 2020, would be in even greater peril, given that tuition goes to funding their baseline operating expenses. These resources have long been strained and students have continued to use many of those resources at the same, if not higher, levels than they were before the spring closure. We cannot deny students access to this vital on-campus safety net, especially when many low-income students have struggled as a result of this virus and may continue to struggle going forward. This alone should be an unequivocal deal-breaker. 

When it comes down to it, I don’t see what justice a reduction in tuition serves. I don’t see who this really benefits other than those who already enjoy power and privilege on our campus. If we reduce tuition, we destroy much of the progress that has been made over the last three decades to make our university a far more supportive place for marginalized subcommunities. Studies have shown that following tuition reductions, many universities witnessed declines in the enrollment of low-income students. We rob ourselves of the ability to experience Georgetown as an institution striving, albeit incredibly imperfectly, towards the ideal of being a “Community in Diversity,” and we undermine this mission so critical to our Jesuit identity. 

We should be fighting for greater financial assistance for students, reductions in student activity fees and other unnecessary costs given the reality of this coming semester, and a greater redirection of funds to students that need campus resources more than ever before. Let’s not fight for a tuition decrease that defeats all these purposes and hurts the very people we claim to support every single day.

Image Credit: Emma Francois

Eric Bazail-Eimil
Eric Bazail-Eimil is a Senator for the Class of 2023 and chairs the Finance and Appropriations Committee of the 14th GUSA Senate.

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