When coronavirus forced Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design to temporarily close its brick-and-mortar location starting March 16 and move students’ classes online, many were puzzled: Why would students be paying the same rate for an online class as they were for an onsite class — particularly when the school already delivers cheaper web-based options to roughly half its students?
Unlike many schools which made the recent transition to online learning after shuttering their campuses, RMCAD already had online courses in place.
As RMCAD President Christopher Spohn tells it, the on-site classes that have migrated online are fundamentally different than RMCAD’s standard virtual offerings. He describes the on-site courses — though now taking place on the internet — as “synchronous,” meaning classes meet at designated times, the lectures are delivered in person, students are expected to be in attendance, and the learning is much more interactive.
Several students who reached out to Westword don't buy that rationale; they paid for in-person classes, and if they can't receive that, they should pay the same as other online students, they say.
Student Government Association President Denise Zubizarreta told Westword she’s baffled by how the school has addressed the move from on-site to online classes, communicated about the tuition questions, and failed to reach out to student government to discuss the situation.
“The communication we have gotten has been really shoddy and kind of vague,” says Zubizarreta.
An example she points to is a recent email from Spohn with the misleading subject line, “RMCAD Tuition Increase Notification,” which students understandably believed meant their tuition was being hiked. When? How? By how much? They didn’t know.
The email itself, which does not state elsewhere that tuition is being raised, reads as follows:
To all on-ground students:
We have decided not to make any tuition changes for students that have migrated to an online modality, for the following reasons:
-Set-up costs to re-purpose on-ground curriculum for online delivery have been tremendous.
-We have incurred increased LMS (Learning Management System) costs, as we move more students into our online platform.
-We have incurred increased costs for faculty/staff training as they begin to transition to the online modality for instruction.
-We have made additional equipment purchases to accommodate faculty, staff and students.
-We have also increased additional support services for those students migrating to the online modality.
These are unprecedented times. Our primary academic goal is to continue to provide you the best quality education possible. I have faith in you and this institution as we work through these very difficult times.
Spohn unequivocally states tuition has not been raised for this year or next and acknowledges students — and their parents — were confused.
But tuition rates are not the only thing unsettling to some students. Several wrote to Westword to explain they are furious they did not have a clear way to drop classes for a full refund when they shifted online.
"This decision was not ours to make, and many students are not equipped to deal with online course work, be it a lack of a computer, internet, a work inducing environment, and so forth," wrote RMCAD student Khalen McDonnell. "Some students are parents who not only now find themselves out of a job, but also have to help their children with online school as well, sitting with them for hours out of the day during the children's own online school hours. The conditions are not conducive for learning, and RMCAD has taken the option away from the students to drop their courses in order to free up time for them to take care of their own families and themselves."
While the add/drop date has passed, Spohn says students still have the option to petition for a withdrawal, and while most are pushing on with their current courses, some have attempted to quit. There are different rules for students depending on how they pay for their education, whether it is financed privately or paid for through federal or private loans. Each case is being considered individually.
"We make sure we are abiding by the federal laws around federal funding," says Spohn. "In every case, we are working with students and parents to do what’s right. If we can refund and do those things in accordance with staying in the policy and federal guidelines, we’re doing that. "
Zubizarreta says students would prefer a simpler add/drop scenario with a full refund option rather than having to petition for a withdrawal, adding that the school should take the exceptional circumstance of a global pandemic into account. As the head of student government, she wishes the administration had consulted with her and the students she represents.
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"Instead of being proactive and discussing this with the student body, they’ve alienated us, increasing anxiety and stress," she says.
Spohn says he and his staff have worked to keep the students informed about everything that's going on. On Friday, March 26, students are being urged to attend an online meeting, where they can ask questions of the administration.
"We’ve been over-communicating form the beginning," he says. That's been my motto: Don’t assume anything. Over communication is the best strategy in this type of situation."
But as Zubizarreta tells it: Those communications aren't clear. "A lot of the students are confused."