Most colleges aren't offering tuition refunds for the fall, should they pivot to distance learning mid-stream.

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Students headed back to their college campuses this fall could experience sudden changes in their semester thanks to COVID-19 — and if that happens, tuition refunds aren’t likely.

In spring 2020, colleges and universities were forced to devise online learning processes for hundreds of thousands of students in the span of several weeks. Some students felt the college experience they paid for was lost in a sea of Zoom meetings, and they demanded refunds for tuition or sued the schools for it.

Higher education institutions spent the summer figuring out how to open their campuses again in the fall, and many school policies state that only room and board refunds will be offered to in-person students for COVID-19 reasons going forward.

The situation has led to petitions, lawsuits and deferred enrollment for students who feel they simply can’t justify paying ballooning tuition costs for online learning. Out of more than 13,000 U.S. college students surveyed by education resource group OneClass, 92% said tuition should be lowered if their college or university were to fully switch to online classes.

Tens of thousands of students signed petitions this year to push schools like Rutgers University, which moved to conduct classes almost completely online this fall, and the University of North Carolina system to cut tuition and waive fees, or commit to refund housing costs if campuses shut down again.

“There are so many things that made the [Rochester Institute of Technology] a really good place to learn, and most of those are not available — yet I’m paying full price,” said RIT student Kiersten Barr, who said she chose the school for its machine shops, labs and tutoring resources. She’s back at campus, but without the learning options she’d have in a typical semester.

Earlier this year, the American Council on Education estimated that college enrollment would drop by 15%, and that U.S. colleges and universities stood to lose about $23 billion in revenue. With COVID-19’s impact on the economy, students’ need for financial aid would increase by $12 billion, ACE predicted. 

 

Spelling out the terms

Lawsuits related to the spring 2020 semester were most often based on allegations that colleges did not follow through on the experience promised to students, because of their pivot to a completely virtual environment, said Audrey Anderson, an attorney with Nashville law firm Bass, Berry & Sims.

Class-action suits involving the return of tuition and fees for the spring semester were filed against Columbia, Cornell, Fordham, Pace, and Syracuse Universities, and at dozens of other schools across the U.S.

This fall, most institutions are telling students that the choice to pay for an in-person semester means they’re coming along for what could be a bumpy and unpredictable ride — and they can’t expect to receive a tuition refund if the next few months don’t meet their expectations due to COVID-19 protocols or outbreaks.

“This really is a contract,” Anderson said. “The school is saying, ‘We’re offering you this kind of education and you’re paying us money, and here are the terms and conditions under which you will get that money back.’”

A statement from Cornell University explained that students may lose access to certain campus facilities, activities, programs and services, and that the school and the instructors reserved the right to change the duration and format of college courses at any time.

“Cornell students understand, acknowledge, and agree that in no case will there be a tuition or fee refund,” the statement continued.

Most schools have kept their regular tuition refund policies in place, in which students can get refunds if they take a leave of absence or withdraw from school altogether. That could potentially apply to a student who shows up on campus or starts online at school this fall, and shortly thereafter decides they’d rather take a gap year or attend another school instead.

Many colleges and universities have also said they’d offer room and board refunds in the event that campuses shut down for residential living in the fall.

 

Colleges doing what they can

At SUNY campuses, students have already received a waiver on certain fees that support services not being utilized this semester, or are being charged a reduced amount for services offered, said spokesperson Holly Liapis. It is expected that SUNY would refund room and board payment and fees for services left unused if schools transition all courses to distance learning, she said.

Families and students should read the documentation from their colleges this semester and make sure they know what the policies are up front, Anderson said.

“I think most schools have been transparent with their students,” she said. “The schools always want to be at capacity, so they want to give as many chances as possible for students to attend. They also understand that families and students are having to make really hard choices, and a lot of families are in terrible financial situations.”

The CARES Act distributed $14 billion to colleges in the spring to help them weather the coronavirus pandemic. Schools must allocate at least half of the funds they received to financial aid for students struggling to get by.

Ithaca College, which has a student population of about 5,550, told the New York Times it fielded about 2,000 inquiries about financial aid and tuition adjustments over a month-long period this summer.

Colleges have to balance the needs of their students, the safety protocols around COVID-19, and their own financial interests, Anderson said.

“The colleges and universities have to make financial choices," she said, "because they don’t have special money trees growing in the garden,” she said.