Students deserve option of hardship tuition credit

Matthew Hanzelka

I expect we’ll all have interesting stories to tell one another one day about how we adapted and overcame the challenges of the 2020 pandemic. 

My story will include navigating competing schedules and new technology so my two elementary-age kids could continue their education, holding together a community nonprofit I lead, maintaining my service as a United States Air Force reservist and continuing graduate school at the UT Steve Hicks School of Social Work. 

I applied to this school because of its consistently high national reputation, and I’ve not been disappointed. As I’ve poured myself into my studies and this community, I’ve developed a deep sense that I’ve found my people among both students and faculty. 

I wasn’t surprised, then, when COVID-19 disrupted our semester but not our community of learners. Several of my professors proactively adjusted our course expectations and their pedagogical approach. 

However, not all professors embrace the same pedagogy. Some have remained rigid and inflexible and, in the case of one of my professors, have opted for a rather austere interpretation of their rights as faculty to determine course parameters for how much and when work is completed. 

After multiple unsuccessful discussions with leadership to resolve my issue, I inquired about the possibility of withdrawing from a particular course and receiving a tuition credit to be used next semester. 

This seemed like a reasonable request given the constraints and challenges on all sides. I was told that the University does not have a process for this kind of arrangement.

To be fair, I believe this is true. I believe the pandemic has surprised us all and we are encountering novel scenarios. I believe it has also threatened most revenue streams and reserve funds and strained budgets in a myriad of unforeseen ways. These realities are not lost on me. 

But I also believe that we are first and always a community of learners. We are finding new, creative solutions to keep moving forward and take care of ourselves and one another (such as extending spring break). 

We are overcoming logistical hurdles at every level to maximize connection amid social distancing (such as through Zoom social hours). And we can also create and implement policies that backstop a reasonable level of institutional decency toward students (such as through a tuition credit). 

I’m a Longhorn because we write incredibly compelling, nationally recognized stories like this. UT leadership has the opportunity to write one right now. 

They’re off to a good start, but it is still underway.

Offering students the option of receiving a pandemic hardship tuition credit if they have to withdraw from a course would be a commendable next chapter. Further, it seems an appropriate one for the conclusion of a Fenves’ presidency so characterized by advocacy for vulnerable students. 

Hanzelka is a first year master of science in social work student from Round Rock, Texas.