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This is Planet Money from NPR. About a month ago, Shreya Patel got a letter from the business school at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She's a senior there, steady supply chain management.
They sent out an email announcing that everything was going to be remote. But that email really did not include anything about tuition and if it would be going down or anything like that.
She reads the email again. She figures they must mention it somewhere. Didn't even address that in the email at all. It was just kind of hidden, like in the fake news.
So she reads the fake you and she's like, wait, my department is going totally remote this fall. Shouldn't that mean I get reimbursed for all the real life stuff that I'm not going to use?
And the answer was no, Shreya, like the dogged supply chain management enthusiast that she is, breaks down her school bill into its elements.
She looks at what services she's supposed to get, who's delivering what and how much each item costs.
OK, so it is one hundred seventy one dollars for computer fees. One hundred and thirty nine dollars for a school fee, six thousand three hundred dollars for tuition, and then thirteen forty seven for a campus fee. So for a total of seven thousand nine hundred fifty seven.
OK, that sounds to me like that's just one semester. Yeah that's one semester. Yeah.
She's thinking more than thirteen hundred dollars for a campus fee.
I might not even see campus this year, let alone go to the student center for my supply chain association club meetings, which, by the way, is a real thing that she goes to. So why are we paying for this?
You shouldn't have to be, you know, paying all these things when you're just getting an online education.
That very afternoon, she receives the email, she goes online, starts a petition. How many people did you think would sign your petition?
I thought maybe like in the low thousands. Shreyas shares it with her friends and her classmates. She puts it up on Facebook. The local TV news picks it up. And Shreya becomes a young woman with a mission to lower tuition with her petition.
Yeah, I know. It's a tongue twister.
Lots of Rutgers students sign it within four days. She got more than 25000 signatures.
Yeah, that's actually crazy. I definitely did not expect that many people to sign it. That is 25000 people saying, you know what? This fall, college is not what I want it to be. So why should I pay full price? Hello and welcome to Planet Money, I'm Amanda Rancic. Colleges are in crisis.
There are around 20 million college students in the U.S. and most of them have no idea what their fall is going to look like right now.
Colleges are making these brutal financial decisions and that's having ricocheting effects, getting students, staff, even entire towns today on the show, heading off to college in a pandemic.
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So this pandemic, it's been going on for a while now, but a lot of us still have questions about just living our everyday lives, like how often should I disinfect my phone? Can I say hi to other people's dogs, honestly? Important question. Join me. Sam Sanders and me, Maddy Saffire, host of shortwave, as we answer your questions and hopefully ease your anxiety a little.
Listen to it's been a minute from NPR. Shreya Patel's petition makes total sense from her perspective, like, why would you pay for things that you're not getting?
But like in the larger economy, paying less means less income for somebody else. And the costs of that adjustment can be painful for Rutgers. The university is weighing trade offs between the demands of students and staff and the unions and their accountants. Those trade offs look very different, depending on what side of the quad you're standing on now.
This is a really big public university.
There are more than 70000 students there, and the pandemic is making the universities scrutinize each and every trade off, every layoff, every cut.
And so there have been a lot of petition's protests, even some lawsuits against the administration. And with that in mind, back in June, I got in touch with this young woman. Her name is Lewis Sandoval, and she's kind of found herself in the middle of this mess.
She's doing her master's degree at Rutgers.
I'm studying epidemiology. The idea was to study infectious diseases. The dream was to work one day with Doctors Without Borders. But now instead, she's getting to experience a real live pandemic without having to travel abroad.
I know it's a very dark silver lining.
How big a role does Rucker's play in your family's life? Oh, it's I would say it's everything. Luse did her undergraduate degree at Rutgers. Her sister did her undergraduate degree at Rutgers. Her brother is planning to transfer there in a year.
Even her 10 year old brother has a Rutgers sweatshirt in his future. My little brother always said that he's going to go to Rutgers to be a dentist.
You know, already since he was four, he's known all of these degrees and the plans for the future have been made possible by their mother and her job in the dining hall.
I did get to speak with his mom, but she was a little cautious about how much she said.
She did tell me, though, that she likes her job a lot. She makes pizza in the dining hall.
And if you have forgotten, pizza is like oxygen for college students. It's a ton of students everyday coming in to eat a lot of times.
Is it loud and crazy? Yes. Yes, it this. What's everybody's favorite food? Pizza. So is your station the busiest station?
The time this is mom makes eighteen dollars an hour, which is not a lot for a family of six, but the benefits have made it worth it.
The job gives her kids a break on their tuition, which is often one of the great things about working for a school.
And it's been a really good and secure job for her.
That is, up until this spring when her dining hall was closed and she received a letter saying that her contract was up.
Now she gets a letter like this every year. She's on a ten month contract, but she always gets her job back in the fall and she's been able to keep her benefits.
Do you have the physical letter? Here is the letter. Oh, yeah. Like the way the letter was worded, it wasn't clear if this was a temporary or a permanent layoff.
The dining hall lost a lot of money in the spring and chances are they're going to lose even more in the fall.
Are we live now when Lucy's mom is part of a union at Rutgers?
And in June, the school's unions held this joint press conference to try to draw attention to a bunch of layoffs without any further ado.
Lucy Sandoval. Hi, everyone.
This was invited by the unions to talk about her mother situation. I knew I wanted to go to because this was the greatest opportunity I could have gotten. And it was wonderful because of the tuition remission, I was able to finish my degree in four years. And so, you know, when we found out that my mother was laid off, we there was like actual fear in the family. Like, we don't know, sorry, I'm emotional. We don't know what's going to happen.
Luce and her family have been part of Rucker's for years.
And when their school makes decisions that seem to prioritize the business over everything else, it absolutely feels like betrayal.
Rutgers is in a tough spot managing their finances. This is Robert Kilton. He teaches at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, not too far from Rutgers.
They don't have as much flexibility as many colleges. Most of their employees are part of a union, and that makes it difficult to lay people off or to change how much money people make.
Robert is an associate professor of higher education. I study and live. I read finance, you study and you live here and finance.
What does that mean? Yeah, I'm also department chair.
Oh, you're in the weeds.
Yeah, I'm deep in the weeds of all this. Trying to get everything ready for fall and falls. Getting close, fall is getting close.
And how college finances are being hit by the pandemic is key to understanding what Rutgers and the unions and loses mom are all facing right now.
Robert says colleges have four main sources of fun. There's tuition, state dollars, endowments and donations, and finally, there's what Robert calls auxillary revenues, which means dorms and meal plans and the money that sports teams make. And all of those things are taking a hit. But it's the things that require real live students on campus that are particularly uncertain right now.
The thing that's terrifying me at the moment is we're roughly a month out from the start of the fall semester as we talk. And most colleges still haven't committed to firm plans about what the fall will look like as of the end of July one.
Tracker lists that about a third of colleges have announced that they're going primarily online.
And that is changing every day because there's no one single college apocalypse story. Colleges themselves are pretty different from each other, but there are patterns.
Community colleges have gone online fairly quickly because they're tied to local communities. They're not worried about having enough students to enroll there, an inexpensive option that's good for students when they need flexibility. Historically, black colleges have also been likely to go online because of the way the virus has affected the African-American community and schools like Harvard have announced they're going fully online, too, because they can students aren't going to drop out of Harvard just because they have to sit in Zoome calls all day.
That means about two thirds of colleges are promising their students an in-person experience or some kind of hybrid model. They want students to commit to showing up this fall.
Students want an in-person experience, even if they don't fully realize what the in-person experience will actually be this fall.
What will the in-person experience be this fall?
Being on campus will be something like living in a monastery or a minimum security prison.
Monks, they don't get out much in person. Interactions are going to be severely limited. Students living on campus are basically going to go to class every once in a while, go pick up food from a dining hall and then do almost everything back in their dorm room. And if you try to go out and party, you'll be scorned.
And the reason it'll be like a minimum security prison is because students will be constantly monitored and tracked.
So what Roberts says is happening is colleges are telling students, also known as prospective buyers, that, yes, school will be in person at least a little and they're going to keep that line long enough for students to mail in a check hoping that the students don't pick another school or defer or drop out.
They're going to be a lot of really upset students and families in a couple of weeks when more colleges say, oh, sorry, we have to go online for the fall, even though they were telling students for months that they would be in person.
And that's what's going to happen. I have a hard time seeing a way around it. For most colleges, college campuses are almost like cruise ships in terms of density and putting people together. They're both fun.
There's lots of organized activities, maybe a few regrettable decisions, but they are also petri dishes of humanity. And for some cautious students and their families, it's kind of a tough sell right now.
So with maybe lower enrollment and less auxillary revenues, that's the dorms, football tickets and pizza colleges say that they can't cut tuition fees.
Now, the students and unions have a counter argument. What about the endowments?
Aren't these meant to be rainy day funds? Aren't we soaking wet from an extremely rainy day?
People think of college endowments. They think of Scrooge McDuck bathing in a pile of gold coins. And the reality is that there are a bunch of little separate bank accounts for particular purposes where those gold coins are divided under lock and key and maybe 20 or 30 percent of an endowment is actually what's called unrestricted. Right, that colleges can use for whatever they want.
If tomorrow Harvard liquidated their endowment, sure, they could give each of their students one point six million dollars. But most students don't go to elite schools with gigantic endowments.
If Rutgers did the same thing, each student would get twenty four thousand dollars. Basically a waterfront house on Cape Cod versus a Chevrolet Malibu, maybe fully loaded.
And then those colleges, they would have spent all of their savings, but they don't want to spend that all at once because they want it to grow in the future. And they also don't know how long this crisis will last. And they don't want to spend their entire nest egg right now if things aren't back to normal for another year or two, another year or two.
And that, sadly, could be the reality for all of us. After the break, we head back to Rutgers. Economics is about more than just charts and graphs, mainly it's about people. If you ever see Lincoln squinting on a penny, it's because I squeezed the crap out of it.
People opening businesses, following their dreams, struggling to build something in a chaotic world.
I just remember downtown burning.
It got real crazy real fast. On the indicator from Planet Money, we bring you easy to understand explanations and human stories to help you make sense of the economy. And we do it in just 10 minutes a day.
Until recently, Edwin Hong says he didn't speak out against racism because he was scared.
My parents told me not to speak up. I was. I'm tired of this, listen now on the Code Switch podcast from NPR. Rutgers did not want to do an interview with us, but I did check in with them a few times about our story and they gave me an update.
The college got a new president as of July 1st.
Poor guy really walked into the fire, but he does earn a lot anyway. He almost immediately sent out an email notifying students of a 15 percent reduction on their campus fees. So I called up Shray Batel, the student with the tuition petition, to see what she thought of that.
They cut 15 percent off of the campus fee. So not 50 percent of the tuition, just the fees ends up being equivalent to about less than three hundred dollars. Basically, they said it like they you know, they want to help us out. But I don't really think through hundred dollars. Less than three hundred dollars really is much help. It's not really what we were aiming for.
You wanted the whole thing gone. Yeah. Or at least 50 percent.
Do you have a little bit of like OK, thank you for trying records like appreciate that you guys made an effort. I mean, yeah it's I like the fact that they you know, at least something happened because that means they saw the petition, they saw all the students, you know, kind of demanding this action. It's just I just think it's still a little, you know, off-putting and maybe a little embarrassing that it's just that low of a no.
Shreya has updated her petition and she is still pressuring the school for a greater reduction.
And I also gave Lewis, the public health student, a call to check up on her and her family. How is your mother doing?
Well, she I think she has dwindled hope things are not looking well.
It seems that some people in her union did get their jobs back, but she and the other dining hall workers have not.
It looks like the school is going to have way less students on campus than usual.
They anticipate that they're probably not going to open all four cafeterias. And even if they do open a few of the cafeterias, there's going to be significantly less like work to be done because they need a social distance.
One possibility, Lou, says she heard her mother talking with a friend about trying to start a landscaping business.
My mother is a hard worker and she'll do anything, but I do know she'd rather be at Rutgers.
Lose also did have some good news. She got a job.
I'm actually starting tomorrow, my first day, and the hourly pay is twenty five dollars.
Luse has been hired as a contact raiser for the state of New Jersey and her salary is being paid for by wait for it Rucker's. It's a six month position in partnership with the state and she can keep doing the job through the fall semester while she works towards her master's degree.
Now, the family's financial calculations are very different since Lou's got this well-paying job and she can see the value of her college degree in this very real way.
If I get my degree faster, I could get into the workforce. They're looking for epidemiologists right now and then I could get a decent paying job. I mean, like I I'm doing a contact tracing right now and it's the highest earning job I think any member of my family has ever had.
And whether college is online or in person this fall, Lose just wants to get her degree and graduate.
Full disclosure, my sister works at Rutgers.
She's a professor there. And most years, I guess, teach there for about a half a day.
The new GDP numbers are out and they are terrible, although maybe not quite as terrible as the numbers you see in the news. If you want to find out more, go listen to the indicator. We love to get your emails. Planet Money and PRG. We're also on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and Tick Tock, all at Planet Money.
Today's show was produced by Darian Woods and Aleksi for Witkacy. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer and Bryant Orlistat edits the show. I'm Amanda Rogich. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.