Over the course of the last 10 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc on just about every aspect of human existence.
In the United States specifically, very little money has been granted to citizens by the federal government in the form of any sort of stimulus relief package. At the time of publication, adults in the U.S. that met a specific income requirement received a one-time payment of $1,200 and another one time payment of $600 right before the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Since then, there has been very little done in the way of providing fiscal relief. As a result, businesses have closed, employees have been laid off, tenants have been unable to make rent and countless other examples of financial hurt.
Not exempt from this struggle, and yet shockingly exempt from all modes of relief, are college students.
In the entire 10-month span since the first lockdown went into place, college students have not been granted any government aid, despite the fact that most are already taking on massive amounts of debt while struggling to maintain minimum wage jobs in retail or service, which are unreliable given the nature of the pandemic.
What can only be seen as an added financial blow are the continued charges that universities do not feel they are able to waive in this time of financial struggle.
At West Chester University, a quick scan of a student’s bill on website catalogue will inform you that, every semester, each student is responsible for covering a variety of miscellaneous charges, including, but not limited to: an Auxiliary Enhancement Fee, meant to support renovations to the student union building; a Parking Improvement Fee, to fund the addition of parking spaces on campus; and a general Health Center Fee, meant to maintain and upkeep the Student Health Center located beneath Commonwealth Hall.
Though not all, many of those items are very specific to funding amenities that are largely exclusive to on-campus and in-person use. The students at West Chester University pay the allotted fees every semester as a part of their tuition, and are still paying these fees, even as the pandemic ravages the country and prevents so many from accessing the amenities for which they are paying.
Via Dr. Zebulun Davenport, Vice President for Student Affairs, the University argues that “our fee structure is largely based on the concept of ‘the greater good,’ or what is equitable for the benefit of most students,” in defense of their decision to retain these miscellaneous charges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is nothing wrong with the belief in that concept of the greater good; under normal circumstances we would offer no qualms about these charges, but these are not normal circumstances. As established earlier in this piece, college students — who, more often than not, are claimed as dependents by their parents — have received no aid from the federal government during this pandemic. Retaining these charges ensures that most students will either a.) be required to assume greater debt in the form of student loans; or b.) work longer hours at jobs that, often, pose a risk to their health when performed during this pandemic.
The university — once again via Dr. Davenport — argues they are not imperceptive to the struggles of their students, saying, “WCU is providing COVID-19 relief credit to both in-state and out-of-state students, full-time and part-time, for spring 2021.” They establish that the university “has invested over $5 million in scholarships and grants” this spring semester, leading to average savings of 11% and 22% for full-time in-state and out-of-state students, respectively.
Frankly, it isn’t enough. Students are still paying hundreds of dollars for services they are not on campus to utilize. For example, according to the bill received by one of this article’s authors, Ali Kochik, a full time, in-state student is charged $3,858 a semester for general tuition. In addition, $1,377.53 is charged per semester in general fees, making the average, full time, in-state student’s total bill per-semester $5,235.53, before adding in any room and board fees.
After receiving a COVID-19 relief credit of $569.27, the total bill is still over $4,600. Even if the COVID-19 relief credit was subtracted from only the amount charged for the assorted general fees, the amount charged for those fees would still be more than $800 — all this for services that the vast majority of WCU’s student body are not close enough to the university to access.
Something that feels necessary to add is the fact that West Chester University students are fortunate to know that they are paying these charges. A vast majority of colleges and universities across the nation lump general fees in with tuition completely, not allowing students access to the information which specifically explains to them where their money is going.
Though being able to see what we are paying for is something that is clearly beneficial and important, it comes with an added frustration of feeling as if we are paying for amenities that we don’t feel comfortable using for any number of reasons.
The university has an answer for this, too: Dr. Davenport stated that “many services are still continuing as they would with face-to-face instruction,” and “our campus remains open to provide classes to a number of students and others interested in utilizing WCU’s services through social-distanced capacities.”
When asking Dr. Davenport if that meant it was the university’s position that accessing these services was safe both for the students accessing them as well as the staff operating them. He stated that “we […] follow the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PADOH) guidelines recommendations for social distancing to operate… Students must sign up for time slots” at the Rec Center, and “sanitizing stations have been placed throughout the facility for student use,” as well as a great many other precautions Dr. Davenport detailed in his answer.
The university ought to be commended for the steps they take to ensure student safety in these buildings. Unfortunately, those steps also make it nigh-impossible for all students paying for the services those buildings provide to access them. Combined with proximity and student attitudes about their own safety during the pandemic, WCU’s students are being charged for much more than the value they see from these services.
It must be said once again — and cannot be said too often — that many students are currently experiencing a period of financial hardship that precludes a concern for the greater good. They must take care of themselves before they can support anyone else, so to pay hundreds of dollars each for services WCU’s campus provides that, for a number of reasons, they cannot or will not access is unconscionable.
We do not intend to accuse the university of intentionally taking advantage of its students; rather, we would point to evidence, explained here thus far, of an unrealistic expectation on the part of the administration in regards to the financial capabilities of the students.
The COVID-19 credit already provided to students constitutes a good start, but it still leaves the university’s thousands of students in a situation of unacceptable financial burden. Even considering that same burden that the pandemic has placed on the university and its reserves, charging students for amenities they do not feel they are in the position to use is not an equitable solution, as it only undermines the relationship and trust between the university and the student body.
We hope that the university might reconcile this issue by reconsidering the charges they have given us and reversing them or even reimbursing those who cannot access the resources they were made to pay for. If you wouldn’t pay for a gym membership because you didn’t feel safe going to a gym, what makes these fees packaged in with tuition any different?
Ali Kochik is a third-year English Writings major with minors in Journalism and Women’s and Gender Studies. AK908461@wcupa.edu
Kyle Gombosi is an eighth-year Music: Elective Studies major with a minor in Journalism. KG806059@wcupa.edu