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Growing Chorus of Students Demand Refunds for US College Spring Semester

Many colleges offered partial refunds of room and board, but colleges have held fast to the idea that nobody should get back any of their tuition money.
BY BrainGain Magazine Staff Writer |   04-05-2020

Tuition Reimbursement

The coronavirus pandemic kicked students at US residential colleges off campus. It was particularly brutal on international students who ran veritable obstacle courses to get back home to far away countries like India and Nepal before borders got sealed.

Since March 16, US colleges have shifted to the online model with varying degrees of success. Now angry students are suing more than 50 schools, demanding partial tuition and room-and-board fee refunds after colleges shut down.

Breach-of-contract lawsuits proliferate

A slew of breach-of-contract lawsuits, many of them filed in the last week in April, target some of the biggest names in higher education like the University of California and Arizona State, as well as Columbia, Cornell and New York University popular with students from India and China.

“Zoom university is exhausting! It’s certainly not worth 75k a year,” quipped an Indian student, who didn’t want to be named.

“I have had to be nocturnal to join the US online classes from India and it’s really annoying,” she added. “We are preparing for finals week and it’s too stressful.”

The limitations of online classes have been listed at length in a petition for a partial tuition refund directed at New York University that has so far accumulated over 11,600 signatures.

US media weighs in on the tuition debate

The US media is also weighing in on whether students and their families have a valid point.

“If you didn’t get what you paid for, and the thing you bought cost five figures, it stands to reason that you’d get some of your money back,” wrote Ron Lieber, in the "Your Money" column, in “The New York Times.”

“But that is not what is happening with the nation’s residential undergraduate institutions this spring. While many offered partial refunds of room and board, administrators have held fast to the idea that nobody should get back any of their tuition payment,” he added.

According to Lieber, the “strange thing about this stance” is that colleges know that many students “aren’t getting full value” for their money.

“Administrators and professors from Northern Arizona University to the Ivy League have acknowledged the deficiencies,” noted the columnist.

Outrageous price of a US degree is unique

Naturally the deficiencies are spawning class-action suits against a range of name-brand institutions as they demand sky-high sticker prices. The outrageous price of a US degree is unique in the world. To justify annual prices that can top $80,000 a year, colleges have long advertised their on-campus experience, including close contact with professors and fellow students.

To top it all, research clearly suggests that students tend to learn less from online classes than they do in face-to-face courses.

US colleges still spending, not saving money

US colleges, meanwhile, are battling circumstances outside their control and have actually been super-efficient in switching gears to online classes. They got off the ground faster than most universities in other parts of the world like the UK or Australia.

“They’re putting tremendous time and resources into supporting remote learning, while still paying professors and bearing other high costs,” Peter McDonough, general counsel for American Council on Education, a college trade group, told Bloomberg.

US colleges are spending more money to invest in technology that will allow students and faculty to meet online, and IT workers are putting in overtime to help faculty navigate online-learning tools. The whole switch to online teaching has been excruciatingly hard on professors as well as their students.

Admin and other non-teaching staff, who make up more than half of college and university employees, are also working very hard, with many mental-health counselors, admissions officers, and the like shifting their jobs to an online format. They report being kept on their toes.

Partial refunds trickle in

Meanwhile, Arizona State said it was giving a $1,500 credit to all students who moved out of university housing by April 15.

Both the University of California and the California State systems have already agreed to return unused room-and-board. Cal State said it’s still providing services, such as counseling, and will refund fees “that have been unearned by the campus.”

Similarly, Harvard, Columbia, Middlebury and Swarthmore, have agreed to refund unused room and board. Others are offering credits or haven’t decided what to do” so far.

Still, refunds can stack up. “Small residential institutions, for instance, may be refunding $2 million to $3 million, while large schools with several thousand on-campus students are likely to return $8 million to $20 million or more,” Jim Hundrieser, a vice president at the National Association of College and University Business Officers, told Bloomberg.

For individual students, the math works out to a solid saving. A college charging about $8,000 for a semester’s room and board that canceled midway might be sending students a check of about $4,000.   

In the fall, if many US colleges and universities open only online, they would forfeit room and board fees and face growing pressure to charge less tuition.



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