UW wasn’t wrong to charge students for online learning

The University of Washington is proud of its faculty and staff’s extraordinary efforts to deliver high quality education to students and help students participate in the university community during the COVID-19 pandemic — all while working hard to keep everyone safe. We strongly disagree with The Seattle Times’ recent editorial regarding the tuition and fees students paid to continue their education during the pandemic’s early days.

We appreciated the editorial board’s observation that “UW students who learned and graduated got their money’s worth.” That’s true: A college education is a long-term investment, and its value can be measured only over the long term. UW graduation and employment rates are consistent with historical averages since spring 2020, and graduates’ average salaries have exceeded those of earlier graduating classes. UW students are seeing the value of their UW education.

We must remember what it was like in March 2020: Our region was at the epicenter of the pandemic’s spread to the U.S., with our nation’s first confirmed COVID case. All we knew was that this new virus spread easily and was killing thousands.

The university was prohibited from teaching in person, in accordance with Gov. Jay Inslee’s directive aimed to limit the virus’ spread. This was a huge challenge — and we met it. Our focus: To safely deliver the high-quality education we have always provided to our students.

We invested millions of unplanned dollars in new technologies and trained our faculty on new ways to deliver instruction. We provided free laptops and other equipment to students in need. We made on-campus housing available to the students who needed it and accommodated students’ unique housing needs. We also provided meal deliveries to quarantined students. We assembled and delivered lab kits to students in laboratory courses so they could continue their coursework at home.

Faculty members expanded office hours to increase students’ direct access to them — some held office hours at midnight to accommodate international students who had returned home. And we jumped through hoops to certify grad students as “essential personnel” so they could continue their work in labs if they chose to do so.

Moreover, in spring 2020 alone, we delivered nearly $1 million of our own emergency funds to students who struggled to make ends meet — long before any federal money arrived. When it did, the UW distributed more than $90 million in federal funds to and for the benefit of students in need.

The switch to online classes came just days before the end of winter quarter in 2020. Students had a choice entering spring quarter 2020: They could continue their education and graduate on time, or they could withdraw temporarily and wait for in-person classes to return. Most did not withdraw, and a record number enrolled for the fully online summer sessions.

Against this backdrop, it is difficult to see commentary falsely suggesting students paid for something they didn’t receive, and that they should have been charged less for online education when it actually cost considerably more to provide than in-person instruction because of the major new investments required to offer all classes online.

At the UW, we generally apply the same tuition rates for online programs as for the in-person version of those programs. That’s because we use the same high-quality faculty and staff and deliver virtual instruction with the same rigor as in-person programs.

The UW’s mission is to provide a first-rate education to meet students’ goal of entering the economy well-equipped for long-term success. We accomplished this despite a historic, life-altering pandemic — and we are proud of everything our faculty, staff and students did to achieve it.

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