Sam Overton Headshot

Twenty days. From the Sunday I moved in to the Saturday when I unceremoniously decided to leave, I had exactly 20 days at the university that I had been counting down the hours, minutes and seconds to attend. As I watched my parents neatly tuck my belongings into the back of our van, I couldn’t help but wonder if every college student living on campus was going to experience the same resolute disappointment that I was.

After observing numerous students enrolled in different institutions across the United States safely remain on campus for weeks after move-in with very low percentages of positive cases, it’s natural to wonder how they managed to pull it off. The unifying factor between these more prepared institutions? They were all private universities with extremely high tuition rates in the $50,000 range.

It should go without saying that every student planning to attend college deserves “the college experience,” from a business major who wants to graduate in two and a half years to the bioengineering and neuroscience double major who is planning for at least eight more years of institutional learning. With that in mind, it’s blatantly obvious that the students who can afford to attend such prestigious, private universities have the odds heavily tipped in their favor when it comes to salvaging their college experience and receiving the preventative health care that every college student deserves, regardless of income.

Private, more expensive institutions should not be indicative of how many resources are available to control the spread of the virus on campus. After all, health is universal, and health care should be as well. Obviously, the college that charges its students a cool $58,000 a year for tuition and fees alone will have more resources available to test, isolate and treat students who are living on campus. At the end of the day, tests cost money. The more money a university has access to, the more they’re able to spend on potentially life-saving resources that can keep the campus open for longer than three weeks.

With more expensive tuition comes less of a chance for prospective students or their families to be able to foot the bill. Notwithstanding financial aid, the difference between the cost of attending a private institution and a public, in-state one can creep into tens of thousands of dollars, making it nearly impossible for students to attend a private college if they don’t want to be swimming in student loan debt throughout their thirties. Public universities are much more appealing in terms of cost—especially for in-state students—which is why they typically have a much higher undergraduate population in comparison to private institutions. As someone who made this difficult choice less than a year ago, I understand. To choose between the colleges I was admitted to, one of the top factors in my decision-making was cost.

Realistically, many students can’t afford to spend up to a quarter of a million dollars on their college education. It shouldn’t be only the students that can pay that insurmountable sum that receive the proper, consistent COVID-19 testing they need on campus in order to remain some semblance of a “normal” college experience. For public universities, a shutdown is inevitable; the bare minimum they can afford is never enough. For more tests, you need more staff to administer those tests and a fast way to release the results—all very costly endeavors that NC State, ECU and a number of other public universities could not reasonably afford.

All of this being said, I am obviously not considering a few factors related to why positive cases on public university campuses have skyrocketed—Greek life, athletics and concentration of students on campus, to name a few. Plus, there are exceptions among smaller public institutions. UNC-Asheville, for example, has only had 12 cumulative cases out of a student body of about 3,600 since they reopened in early August. 

However, it’s still clear that a campus-wide shutdown is becoming more and more inevitable for a number of large public institutions, while costly private colleges are able to keep their heads under the radar and administer copious amounts of testing. Students shouldn’t have to potentially go into debt for attending a university that is able to provide proper preventative health care. That being said, public universities need to recognize that they are either unable to provide a safe experience for their students and send them home, or they need to allocate their funds to pushing past a standard that’s just the bare minimum. Whether that means closing common areas in dorms, allocating students to single rooms only or effectively reinforcing the mask rule, the blame isn’t entirely on the amount of money that the institution can allocate to health care.