On March 16, 2020, the White House issued its Coronavirus Guidelines to America. They included this simple guidance to all students, including those at colleges and universities: "Engage in schooling from home whenever possible."
Institutions of higher education responded quickly to the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly all of those that had not already done so canceled most or all live classes, announcing plans to transfer instruction to online platforms.
Government guidelines also urged citizens to "avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people." While that's not quite the literal description of a college dormitory, it's close enough. Accordingly, all but a few schools closed their dorms and sent students home.
The speed with which the coronavirus crisis—and the policies responding to it—developed has left many questions unresolved. School policies change daily in the face of this rapidly escalating emergency, and they will likely continue to do so. It's even possible that, in a week or two, schools will cancel their spring terms entirely if they find online course delivery unsatisfactory to students and instructors.
For now, however, the plan is to send students home and complete the term online. Students will certainly receive less than they bargained for when they started this term. No live in-person classes, no face-to-face office hours, no extracurricular activities, no cafeteria meals, and no on-campus residences. In addition, as Robert Leitner, whose daughter attends Ithaca College, points out: "The school has no more food expenditures, and energy costs will have gone down dramatically, as will water use and other on-campus services." Under the circumstances, is it fair to charge students full price, or are they due some form of reimbursement?
Schools' response to this question has been largely uniform and unequivocal. As the University of Nebraska at Kearney puts it on the school website: "UNK will not refund tuition and student fees because remote instruction is continuing through the remainder of the semester."
Students may argue that the online education they'll receive is inferior, and in at least some instances, they will doubtless be correct. Schools are scrambling to launch online courses, a process that involves not only technical challenges but also adapting curricula to online instruction and teaching faculty how to manage online classrooms. It will not all go smoothly, and there will be occasions when quality suffers.
Some will also suggest that online courses are cheaper to deliver. At some schools, at least, pricing bears out this assertion: at Emerson College, for example, online summer courses cost $778 per credit, while spring on-campus courses cost $1,517.50 per credit. That pricing structure certainly suggests that online courses can be delivered more inexpensively than on-campus courses.
Not so fast, says M. Lee Pelton, Emerson's president. As he explained to the Berkeley Beacon, "The classes are being taught by Emerson faculty. They are being paid the same for online classes as they are for in-person classes… It has cost the college some money to mount the online classes, and to prepare and educate faculty to present or to teach online. So, in fact, online classes cost more, not less, than in-person classes."
Why, then, are the school's online summer courses less expensive? Perhaps because they were produced to be offered multiple times, spreading the cost of production over many semesters. The courses mounted for online delivery during the coronavirus crisis, in contrast, will be offered only once.
In the end, however, there is probably a simpler explanation for why schools are unlikely to offer tuition refunds. As Robert Kelchen, professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, explained to MarketWatch: "A lot of colleges simply can't afford to give [tuition] refunds. They don't have the extra money to do that when they are paying their employees."
For schools to charge students full tuition, they need to be able to deliver their full complement of courses. So what about courses that are difficult—arguably impossible—to offer online? These include:
Most schools will try to find the nearest online approximation to these in-person educational experiences. Amy Dooley, whose daughter Chloe studies visual art at Maryland Institute College of Art, reports that "The school is working it out now. Probably, they'll have the art students send photos back and forth and critique each other's work online." She adds that the school is hedging its bet somewhat by allowing students to complete this semester on a lower-stakes pass/fail grade scale.
Where suitable online versions are impossible, schools will likely postpone courses until on-campus classes can resume. The logistics of deferring half-completed courses are challenging enough to motivate schools to make every possible effort to complete courses online during the spring of 2020.
When it comes to tuition refunds, schools can argue that they are still delivering courses and credits, making refunds unnecessary. The same logic does not apply to room and board, however; once you kick someone out of their dormitory and shut down their meal plan, you have clearly stopped providing services. And not just any services, but essential services: food and shelter. Students will have to find both elsewhere, and all but the wealthiest will need the money they spent on dorms and meal plans to acquire them.
Most schools that have closed dormitories and shuttered meal plans have already announced refunds. Some schools are prorating more or less precisely: for example, Duquesne University, whose spring term lasts 20 weeks, will refund 43 percent of room and board charges to students who vacate by March 22, 11 weeks (or 55 percent of the way) into the semester. Some may try to prorate at a discount to recoup sunk costs; as Mauri Ditzler, president of Albion College, explained to the Wall Street Journal, "The last meal the student eats is not as expensive as the first meal," Mr. Ditzler said. "The actual meal itself isn't as expensive as the fact that one has to hire cooks and set up a good delivery system."
Some schools are not currently planning to offer refunds. Georgetown College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Kentucky, posted the following statement on its website: "Given this is completely unforeseen and out of the control of the college, and we are nearly two-thirds of the way through the semester, the college is not in a financial position to offer any rebates on housing or meal plans." These schools should expect pushback. "I would not be surprised if colleges that refuse to provide room and board refunds will face class action lawsuits," Mark Kantrowitz, higher education expert, told CNBC.
As of this writing, a third group of schools had committed to offering refunds but had not yet determined the amount. To be fair, schools are managing overwhelming challenges in emptying their campuses and preparing to deliver academic content online. It is understandable that some, in the course of their triage, have deemed the amount of a promised refund less critical and thus postponed the decision until more-urgent matters are settled.
A small group of schools have given students the option of remaining on campus even as they transition to online instruction. The University of Nebraska - Lincoln is "encouraging students to move out of their residence halls" but adding that they "aren't required to do so." Students who choose to leave by March 24 will receive a 60 percent refund of the semester room and board.
What about students who have nowhere else to go? Most schools are making exceptions for these students, who include:
Many schools are planning to relocate these students to a single dorm, with rooms appropriately spaced to enforce social distancing. Some food services will remain open on these campuses but will serve only 'grab and go' meals.
Some schools have already announced that they will send out refund checks in the coming weeks. Others will credit refunds to student accounts to be remitted by check at a later date, or applied to subsequent charges (e.g., the Fall 2020 semester).
The coronavirus event has caused tremendous strain throughout society. Colleges and universities—and their students and their parents—face a seemingly endless stream of surprises and challenges in the wake of this crisis. The rapidly changing status of the pandemic has amplified the stress and confusion; this morning's breaking news is often no longer relevant by the time evening rolls around.
Throughout it all, schools have been soldiering through. We spoke to many students and parents in writing this story. By and large, they spoke positively about schools' efforts to remain transparent and keep stakeholders informed. "Case Western Reserve University has been sending constant emails throughout this ordeal and made decisions ahead of the curve throughout," says parent Cathy Sanchez. Pamela Wexler, whose son is a freshman at University of Florida, tells us that "university communication has been good." That helps promote calm during understandably fraught times.
Strong and clear communication from universities will be essential in the weeks and months to come. In the absence of sporting events, clubs and organizations, academic events, and keggers, it may have to carry the entire load of maintaining a sense of community among a dispersed, isolated student body.
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