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Your Take: Can You Ask For Tuition Back?

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Earlier this week, an anonymous student at Boston College wrote a letter to interim Dean George Brown of Boston COllege Law School to request his two and a half years of tuition back. He was facing financial difficulty (pregnant wife, weak job prospects, and an even weaker desire to be saddled with massive student loans) and so offered up a deal – return his two and a half years of tuition and he’ll leave without his degree. In fairness, the school does get to bolster its image because it wouldn’t have to report his unemployment upon graduation to magazine rankings. :)

I’d like to propose a solution to this problem: I am willing to leave law school, without a degree, at the end of this semester. In return, I would like a full refund of the tuition I’ve paid over the last two and a half years.

It’s hard to say how serious the letter is (it’s probably not) but it’s a clever idea, even if it’s just to get some publicity. Sadly, it’ll never happen since you can’t “unlearn” two and a half years of study (nor can you recover the lost tuition, since the student did take up a spot in the classroom that would’ve gone to someone who could have finished) but it does stimulate the mind a little.

One of the big things I realized, with the help of articles I read online, is that part of the reason why higher education is so expensive has to do with the subsidies in the form of interest free loans and other grants. Regardless of how much tuition actually costs, subsidies increase the cost by spreading it out across multiple payers. If I go to school and the non-subsidized tuition should be $10,000 (which is an amount I’d be willing to pay, since I may not get grants or loans) and I can get $5,000 in grants, then I’m getting $10,000 of value for $5,000. Taxpayers subsidize the $5,000. Eventually schools wise up, increase tuition to $15,000 so that they can get $10,000 from the student (who is still paying the “right” amount) and $5,000 from taxpayers. It’s clearly not as simple as this but subsidies don’t help the problem, they make it worse.

Thoughts?

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46 Responses to “Your Take: Can You Ask For Tuition Back?”

  1. cubiclegeoff says:

    There have been other examples of people suing their college because they can’t find a job. Unless the college made a promise that they’d get a job (highly unlikely), then the person has to deal with it.

    I see your point about the subsidies. However, without subsidies, a good portion of the population wouldn’t be able to go to college, unless the whole financial structure of a college is redone (including professor’s salaries, which generally are not that high, facilities that keep up with modern demands, etc). And ultimately, we need people to be educated for our economy to stay on track and not lose ground to others. Although, maybe limiting the subsidy for degrees that are less beneficial and increase them for those that are more beneficial, such as engineering, math and science, may help.

  2. Beth says:

    I’m trying to imagine this scenario working with any service. I couldn’t exactly call up my cable company and say “I’m strapped for cash, how about giving me back the last two years of payments and in return I’ll stop being your customer?”

  3. Traciatim says:

    Instead of income testing low interest loans just government back all loans and have it interest free while in school. Then apply the subsidies in the form of payments on the loan proportional too the GPA or performance of the student upon graduation.

    In your example, lend the person 10K up front, and they will know they are eligible for up to 50% of their tuition in relief at the end if they make a 4.0GPA, for each .1 GPA drop, 5% comes off of their relief. Incentives for performance, not for attendance.

    • daenyll says:

      I went to a school with an engineering program specifically designed to weedout people in the first two semesters. I had two friends who were forced to reconsider their majors and if their ability to pay was based on only those two semesters they would have been unable to stay in school and reevaluate their focus and move to programs that they excelled at.

      I worked my butt off in the engineering program to maintain above a 3.25 and after that first year both my friends found things they liked better and were better suited for, and both managed to recover the GPA and finish higher than me.

      And not all schools, or even depertments within competative schools, are as hard on grades as others. How would you judge performance across different grading systems?

      • tbork84 says:

        Most quality engineering programs attempt to weed out their students in the first year or two. I imagine that most people with an engineering or science degree will agree that the course load early on is designed to pluck the weaker students from the herd.

    • live green says:

      I agree completely with daenyll. There is no way to really do a performance based loan because of the degree of difficulty among majors.

      I got my degree in computer science and I had to work my butt of to get the pretty good gpa I had, but still not a 4.0. I have friends who were other majors that were out partying all weekend and still ended up with 4.0 or close to 4.0 because they had very little work and the classes were much easier. Though I was able to find a job much easier than them after college, it would suck that I have to pay more back on a loan just because I decided to pick a major that is much harder than theirs.

      I think a better way could be percentage ranking. If you are in the top 10% in your major, then you get a discount. But even this doesn’t work in all situations.

  4. zapeta says:

    Well, you can ask for a lot of things but it doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. While tuition subsidies do drive the cost of education up, I wouldn’t be able to attend college without them and I know I’m not alone. So what would you propose as an alternative?

    • Beth says:

      Do U.S. schools have work-study programs? The University of Waterloo and many other universities in Canada have co-op programs where students alternate semesters in school with work terms in their chosen field. Many people graduate with the equivalent of a year and a half work experience, which gives them a huge advantage job hunting after graduation.

      It’s a win-win situation. Students get valuable work experience and a good wage, not to mention building a professional network and potentially a future job. Companies get a tax break and a chance to audition future employees.

      • Maddhatter says:

        Yes, we do have work-study programs, but they are typically nothing more than teaching assistant jobs. Not exactly a networking or job prospect gold mine. This was my experience anyway; however you are right that internships and co-ops should be something ever student seeks. My university didn’t have a program per se, but I (Engineering background) and my roommate (History) both were able to find internships and they were simply golden.

      • freeby50 says:

        “work-study” is the term we use in the US for certain on campus jobs.
        co-op or intern is the name we use for a job off campus at a private company that is in your field.

      • tbork84 says:

        It really depends on the school and the program. I know that some schools like Northeastern have a big co-op program where students take a semester or year off from classes to work in their field.

        But that school is one of the more expensive ones in the Northeast. Nearly up there with the Ivies and MIT.

  5. Beth says:

    I’m curious… Why is education so expensive in the U.S.? Does it have to do with the whole state versus out of state or public versus private dichotomy? Or are schools in Canada funded differently? (For instance, there’s a big difference between colleges and universities — including the price.)

    I don’t want to argue about which is better or not. I’m just curious. I’m thoroughly puzzled when I read about students in the U.S. racking up huge debts for humanities or arts degrees. Doesn’t make any sense to me.

    • cubiclegeoff says:

      Schools in Canada are funded differently. The difference between College and University here generally has to do with the ability to have post graduate studies. As for cost, a lot of our schools are private schools, which are expensive.

    • billsnider says:

      A school year runs about 30 weeks, with a little extra for exam weeks. That means that you have idle facilities that you must still maintain (ex: heat), workers who you must pay and fixed costs (a ton of them). If you could add another semester, you can bring more revenue and bring down costs.

      The point is that they are not run like a factory where you squeeze every last oportunity and capacity out of your operation.

      Not arguing that this is better, just trying to suggest why the costs are so high.

      Bill Snider

      • MikeZ says:

        Well that seems like a somewhat easily solvable problem. Why doesn’t the school run 40+ weeks a year? and push students through faster? There really doesn’t seem to be much justification for having longer vacations once you get to college than there was during public school. As you say the school is still paying all those costs and it could make use of the facilities to some extent that is their own choice.

        Also if it were just maintainence costs you would expect that tuition costs would have kept the same relative costs

        • Mary says:

          Going to school all year round would have been disastrous for me. I needed the time off to work to earn more money for the next year!

          Hmmm. I wonder if the extra debt load would balance the fact you graduate a year earlier and hence have an extra year of a full time salary. (You’d have to job hunt either way). Although, then there is the interest to consider too…

      • Beth says:

        Good point! The only school I know of in Canada with a true three semester system is the University of Waterloo (due to it’s large co-op program). Because most faculties offer co-op, courses run all year long.

        Of course, the problem is that you can misses elective classes you want to take if you’re on a work-term or if you opt for the regular stream and it’s offered in the summer, so it’s a bit of a trade off.

  6. Jim, to directly answer your question “Can you ask for tuition back?”, yes, you can always ask. You’ll probably not get anything back, but you can ask.

    I agree with the insight already mentioned here. Tuition is not a prorated “fee” that is later exchanged for a degree. Tuition pays for your education. You can go back and undo that service, so there is no way to return it.

  7. Sun says:

    I’m not sure how you arrived at schools charging more if there are subsidies. The school is still getting paid. If we are to have a cheap labor pool, it’s not in the interest of big business to support higher education. For example, you can import an it person from India for half or a third of the cost of a USA educated person. Big business just has to point lack of skilled workers in the us. They control government and if they don’t want to support education, there will be no support.

  8. fairydust says:

    “you can’t “unlearn” two and a half years of study”

    There were many times when I felt I had unlearned everything just as soon as the exam was over :)

  9. Nicole says:

    That’s really unfair! Then the school is profitting off of people who can’t afford tuition in the first place. Although some people abuse loans… I thought schools played fair and gave the lower income people an actual break.

  10. While I was at ASU and going through the major cutback they did, it really frustrated me because tuition was going up and I wasn’t getting more, I was getting less and less. For example we didn’t have a TA for one of my upper-division class that I could have used. Here is a small snippet of what they are dealing with.

    http://asunews.asu.edu/20100311_tuition

    The bottom line is they are not getting funded like they should. That is true across many industries with the government.

  11. freeby50 says:

    I do not think that subsidies are the ‘problem’. Tuition only pays 25-35% of the cost of public college as it is. College is expensive. Tuition has been going up because tax dollars are footing less of the bill and more of the cost is shifting to students. If you took away state money then public schools would cost 3-4 times as much as they do.

    • uclalien says:

      While I disagree with your first point and believe subsidies are a problem of sorts, I think you are partially correct in your second point. The tuition paid by those people in “unpopular” majors only pays a fraction of the costs associated with attending college. But for people like me who sat in classrooms with over 300 other students in many cases, I actually overpaid for college, effectively subsidizing the “unpopular” majors.

      • live green says:

        That is a great argument. Many people make that same argument with college sports. Many of the major sports like basketball and football programs fund most of the other smaller sports programs. It’s a tough call because you want more money to go towards the bigger sports, but you still don’t want to dump all of the other great sports programs as well.

        • Sun says:

          At my college, we got rid of the male football team. That way, the ratio of female athletes to male athletes moved closer to a 1:1 ratio.

  12. Chuck says:

    If the question is “do subsidies distort the market?” the answer is “Yeah, duh.” Or alternately “Yes, that’s what they’re for.”

  13. Sun says:

    Jim, what is the problem you are referring to? Subsidies don’t help the student? Or it doesn’t help the bank because they can’t loan as much money? If there were no subsidies, why would a post-secondary institution reduce their fee to $10,000 after they have been charging $15,000?

    • uclalien says:

      It’s simple supply and demand. Absent subsidies, fewer people would be willing to attend college and take on additional debt. In order to attract more students (and increase total revenues), colleges would be forced to lower tuition.

      • Sun says:

        Unless, of course, the institutions can fill their quota with students from out of state or out of the country. If you remove subsidies, you also lose diversity in the student population. So, I am not sure how removing subsidies would reduce tuition costs…

        • uclalien says:

          How do you come to the conclusion that an influx of foreign and out-of-state students would result in less diversity?

          And if public institutions chose to respond to fewer public subsidies by enrolling an even larger ratio of foreign and out-of-state students, this would lead to a public backlash against funding these institutions with the in-state population’s tax dollars. This approach would likely lead to even less public funding and result in even higher tuition. As a result, I’m not sure this would be an effective approach.

          • Sun says:

            Since we are removing subsidies, why would there be a backlash? There is no public funding. My point is: if schools need students to enroll, they will find a way to recruit them. So, the premise that tuition will be reduced without subsidies is not going to happen.

          • uclalien says:

            @Sun
            I think you and Jim are using the term “subsidy” in different ways. Jim was referring to direct subsidies, while you appear to be referring to all public funding. Logically, I assumed that you were using Jim’s definition.

            “My point is: if schools need students to enroll, they will find a way to recruit them.”

            That’s like saying, “If businesses need customers, they will find a way to attract them.”

            But this assumes 2 things:
            1) Their product is desirable.
            2) They can provide incentives to attract those customers (students).

            This assumes that their product is desirable at the now effectively higher tuition price. But if their product is priced too high, no amount of advertising (recruiting) will make a difference.

            In either case, you ignore the basic economics of what a world with fewer or no subsidies would look like. Absent subsidies, tuition has been effectively increased. One option for schools would be to lower tuition in an attempt to keep real tuition costs level. Another option would be to increase the level of education a student receives per tuition dollar by hiring more and/or better professors in an attempt to mitigate the effective tuition increase. While nominal tuition may not increase in the second scenario, real tuition costs would be lower as students would now be getting more bang for their buck.

  14. Don C says:

    While all of the grants scholarship and tax credits are well intentioned, there are invariably driving up the costs of tuition.

    If you know your customer is able to afford more that what you are charging and will pay more if you charge more simply becasue thy are spending ‘other peoples money’ then of course they will charge more. It’s all about what the market will bear.

    Now all we need is Obama to come in and tell everyone how he will help keep education costs down, just like he did for heath care costs…

  15. Pat says:

    The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford discusses the problem with subsidies (among other similar things) that you touched on here. I highly recommend the book.

  16. M&M says:

    I would love to ask for my last two years of tuition back. I’ve paid mostly out of pocket (no loans, no grants, no help from family) to get my AAS in business, only to find out now that most 4 year colleges will take about 15 of my 60 credits. Or I can pay twice as much to go to a mostly online univesity that will take all my credits, but costs twice as much as the brick and morter 4 year universities. When I started the program it was guarenteed that I’d be able to go on to a bachelors, merely implied, so now that I have limited choices, I’m a bit upset to say the least.

  17. saladdin says:

    The entire education system is f’ed.

    1. Use testing/grades/performance to start weeding kids into career tracks in high school.
    Do these as a requirement, not an option. By your junior year you pick a trade or one is picked for you. Sorry parents, little Johnny is really not smart enough to go to Harvard.

    Start Technical/Vo-Tech Schools in junior year of high schools to actually teach trades such as plumbing, electrical. This will weed out those who just want a job and those who want to go to college.

    2. End the requirement for classes such as mythology/music and end electives (or cut them in half)for colleges.

    3. A 4 year degree is now 2.5 (maybe 3) years with the last semester a required work-study/internship at an actual business. Make it a requirement for graduation, not an elective.

    4. Community colleges should not offer degrees, only trades such as nursing and EMT. Market it as a mid-level professional school, not where you go because you don’t have a clue what you want to do.

    5. Outlaw University of Phoenix type schools.

    6. MBA’s are diluted to the point of either it is a Top Tier or it’s borderline worthless. PHD’s are next.

    7. If you read this far you know I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

    saladdin

  18. Scott says:

    Uhh, no.

    The future of our country seems to include lots of people who feel they can walk away from responsibilities.

    Started with fathers leaving families, bankruptcies, forclosures & now ones education…spiraling down…what’s next? I hope fido & the kids can feed themselves.

  19. I certainly think the letter is definitely a stunt by the student to garner some attention. I give him an “A” for effort. His angle of approach is certainly not one that would be used my many.

    If I had to guess, his grades are probably not up to snuff and he is using lack of job prospects and money as the fall guy for his departure. If it is grades, he probably will be asked to leave at the end of the semester anyway…

    It’s a shame because based upon his letter, I am guessing he would make a great lawyer.

    • uclalien says:

      It’s definitely a stunt. But given the current job market, even a good student doesn’t have a great chance of landing a job fresh out of college these days. One of my buddies was recently helping his HR department fill an entry level position at his firm. To his surprise, they received a pile of resumes from applicants with advanced degrees and years of experience. His firm isn’t unique. This is happening in any industry where a job opening makes an appearance.

  20. “I’ve been eating at your restaurant twice a week for two years. I’ll promise never to come back if you’ll refund me the cost of all those dinners.”

    Tuition is payment for a service. He received the service. They get to keep the payment.
    I’m no fan of college loans (See my MSN Money column on the subject, “Finish college with zero debt.”) But for him to want his money back because of low job prospects seems awfully immature. Did he really believe that there were guarantees attached to college diplomas?

  21. Sun says:

    Jim hasn’t clarified his posting in any way, so we can only guess what his point really is and how he came about his conclusion.

    @ uclalien

    Direct subsidies in the form of interest-free loans and grants are publicly funded.

    > 2) They can provide incentives to attract those customers (students).

    2) If subsidies are removed, the school tuition becomes more attractive to out-of-state students and even more so to foreign students. The incentive is financial and without direct subsidies, there is a huge market the schools can tap outside of in-state students.

  22. cmg says:

    only a l a w student could come up with such a crafty scheme

  23. Wil Possible says:

    This is a serious matter for many because with the economy going south many college graduates are facing unemployment. And the sad truth is, this is a trend that will not stop anytime soon. With the advent of technology and the high speed at which information is traveling across the globe, most of what one learns in college is obsolete upon graduation.

    As a college education forms the foundation an individual, I strongly recommend college grads to seek out life coaching from masters such as Tony Robbins. Some of his seminars may cost over $10,000 but the learning experience is worth every penny. (I don’t work for Tony but I value what I’ve learned from him.)


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