The University Insider is The Daily’s first faculty and staff-oriented newsletter. This weekly newsletter will give U-M faculty and staff the ability to see the most important issues on campus and in Ann Arbor — particularly those related to administrative decisions — from the perspective of an independent news organization. It will also provide a better understanding of student perspectives.

The University of Michigan Board of Regents approved a 1.9 percent tuition increase for both in-state and out-of-state students for the 2020-2021 academic year on June 29 despite thousands of students signing a petition calling for the University to freeze or lower tuition. Some other major universities, however, have responded to the financial crisis due to COVID-19 by freezing or lowering tuition for incoming and current students.

The costs associated with attending a university were already increasing before the financial impact of COVID-19 hit. From 1989-90 to 2019-20, average tuition and fees tripled at public four-year universities after adjusting for inflation, according to a study by The College Board.

While the University has said it expects a significant loss of funding from tuition and other revenue streams, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Daily the proposed budget incorporates an expected increase in the number of families with financial need given the current economic conditions. Fitzgerald told The Daily that the University has taken a number of measures to help absorb the financial burden of tuition on students.

“It’s also important to understand all of the efforts happening across campus to reduce costs and keep tuition down,” Fitzgerald wrote. “The budget proposal, for example, included $102 million in cost savings that come from sacrifices shared among faculty and staff. Faculty and staff that are not part of bargaining units will see no increases in salary this year. A university hiring freeze means that staff are being asked to do more and absorb additional work as vacancies occur. The proposed tuition increase would be higher without these efforts.”

Other public universities have completely absorbed the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic by vowing not to increase tuition for students in the upcoming academic year. Several public universities in Michigan such as Michigan State University, Wayne State University, Central Michigan University, Western Michigan University and Oakland University have all announced tuition will not increase for the 2020-2021 academic year. A statement from Samuel L. Stanley Jr., Michigan State University’s president, explains this decision..

“In the coming months many families will be facing difficult financial decisions as a result of the pandemic,” Stanley said in the statement. “In freezing tuition rates for the upcoming academic year, we are doing what we can to ensure students can stay in our Spartan family.”

When students criticized the University of Michigan for raising tuition despite having the largest endowment of Michigan public Universities by a factor of four — $12.4 billion compared to MSU’s $3.03 billion — Fitzgerald said the University already uses a significant portion of its endowment funds towards affordability.

“Endowment distributions already help to keep costs down for students,” Fitzgerald wrote. “In fact, without donor and endowment support, tuition would be about $6,000 higher each year. About 22 percent of the total endowment is restricted to direct student financial aid. Other endowed funds have an indirect effect on tuition as well.”

SMTD junior Sammie Estrella said she disagrees with the University’s refusal to dip further into the endowment to lighten the financial burden on students. 

“We have such a large endowment and multiple schools in Michigan have decided to freeze their tuition and with much smaller endowments,” Estrella said. “I think the school is just throwing out whatever they can, thinking that our student body and our families are not going to notice that we have a larger endowment than other schools who have gone down and are freezing their tuition. It just seems like the students are paying for other students, and the school is not having to actually utilize their own money. The refusal to go into the endowment is a bit confusing considering the school has received financial aid funding through the governmental CARES Act in May.”

The Board of Visitors at the College of William and Mary, a public research university in Williamsburg, Va., unanimously approved a tuition freeze for both in-state and out-of-state students for the upcoming academic year. W&M staff explained this decision in a press release on their website.

“Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and their families, the Board would reverse the previously adopted increase and approve zero increase for tuition and mandatory fees for all students,” the statement reads. “The action is part of the university’s overall planned response to mitigate financial strain on students and families.”

Other elite public universities comparable to the University of Michigan have varying plans. The UVA Board of Visitors approved a tuition increase with in-state students paying up to $880 more annually and out-of-state students up to $2,094 more annually in December of 2019. UVA has since announced that there is no plan to alter that tuition level in a statement on their website.

SMTD junior Mary Handsome, an out-of-state student who funds her education through a merit scholarship, federal aid and her own savings, told The Daily she believes many universities like UVA are taking the easy way out in response to COVID-19 finances.

“They need to try to actually look at methods of budget reductions or cost containment to try and figure out ways to save money and make up for what money they will be losing without forcing students to fit the bill of their expenses,” Handsome said. “Parents are not going to be getting raises this year. We’re fully in an economic recession right now, and so I feel like these universities are being incredibly insensitive and it just shows the lack of awareness that they have about the financial situations of their students and their families.”

Both UC-Berkeley and UCLA have announced that there will be no change in the tuition and fees set by the UC Office of the President in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the tuition levels are still subject to change, this policy refers to the currently approved rates for the 2020-2021 academic year as explained on UC Berkeley’s website.

“Tuition and mandatory fees are set by the University of California Office of the President for all UC campuses,” the statement reads. “Tuition and mandatory fees have been set regardless of the method of instruction and will not be refunded in the event instruction occurs remotely for any part of the Academic Year. Mandatory university charges for tuition and student services continue to help cover ongoing operations such as the delivery of instruction and the cost of student services such as registration, financial aid, and remote academic advising.”

Handsome said she appreciates the transparency of UC-Berkeley and UCLA in announcing that there would be no refunds regardless of the format of instruction and she would rather have full knowledge of her financial options before starting the academic year at the University of Michigan.

“I feel like it’s really unfair to not offer a reduced rate or a refund,” Handsome said. “But also, on the flip side, I appreciate (University of California – Berkeley and UCLA) pre-announcing that they’re not going to give refunds. The big problem that I had with our University, and a big problem that a lot of students had, is I feel like they just didn’t tell us anything and even now are not really telling us much. I would rather know ahead of time, and then make the decision of whether or not I am going to take a gap year or am going to continue with my education, versus being forced to wait until it’s too late to really do anything other than continue with my education.”

Handsome said she has felt a significant change in sentiment towards the cost of attendance to the University as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.  

“I feel like the University is very presumptuous when it comes to students,” Handsome said. “As much as they talk about their commitment to anti-racism and being affordable, their actions don’t line up with their words. I think that the University is kind of assuming that, ‘Oh well, their parents paid for and are going to pay for everything.’ But there’s so many students here — usually people of color — who are truly trying to just finance their own education, trying to create a future for themselves and better themselves, and the University is just creating roadblocks at this point and not even thinking about them, it feels like. It’s just really disheartening.”

Staff Reporter Megan Shohfi can be reached at mshohfi@umich.edu

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