How are colleges creating refund policies that balance student needs, institutional resources?

Having asked students to leave campus mid-semester, many colleges and universities now find themselves navigating another challenge: requests to provide refunds for student housing, meal plans, and other fees. Institutions’ approaches have varied; some have taken proactive steps, others are responding directly to student petitions, and still others have said they need to wait and see, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

An assortment of refund models

Education research and services firm EAB recently analyzed the state of refund policies at four-year colleges, finding that many institutions are refunding room and board on a prorated basis, or are assessing whether they could do so. “We knew many of our students were going to have a hard time financially, and this was something we could do to help,” said Chris Sigurdson, vice president of communications for the University of Arizona, which has said it will provide students at least a partial refund. “It was the right thing to do.”

Several schools are distributing room and board refunds through direct cash payments, but most are issuing credits, or vouchers, to student accounts, which students will be able to use to cover future charges. The approach allows institutions to maintain cash-on-hand while encouraging students to re-enroll next semester, according to EAB. Other schools, meanwhile, have devised hybrid approaches that offer direct refunds to graduating seniors, who won’t be back to use credits, while providing credits for everyone else.

Tuition refunds, however, have gotten far less traction. According to EAB, almost none of the refund policies announced as of March 25 included tuition reimbursements, given that institutions have moved courses and instruction online.

Some higher ed leaders have bristled when asked to provide refunds. Arizona State University President Michael M. Crow, for instance, told The Arizona Republic that refunds are “48th on a list of 48 things” on his pandemic priority list. Arizona State students have petitioned for housing and dining reimbursements, but the school isn’t offering them at the moment. University spokesperson Jay Thorne told The Chronicle that Arizona State could shift course later, acknowledging that “it’s increasingly a worry for people about their economic stability in the financial disruption this has caused, so we get that.”

Balancing student needs with financial realities

The Chronicle notes that “the cost of refunds would be a blow to any college’s bottom line,” let alone institutions that are already strained by the recent pandemic, have smaller endowments, or may be anticipating enrollment declines or changes in state funding. Experts have estimated that housing and meal plan reimbursements at large universities could add up to tens of millions of dollars.

College and university leaders have said that federal relief measures will be key in offsetting the cost of providing refunds. “Without federal assistance, UConn does not have other means to recoup these losses,” University of Connecticut President Thomas C. Katsouleas said in a written statement. “Raising tuition and fees to the level needed would be untenable for our students and their families, and state support of this magnitude may simply not be possible. With a relatively small and restricted (by donor agreements) endowment, the university has nowhere else to turn.”

EAB writes that higher education leaders “face a difficult balancing act: they need to create refund policies that appropriately recognize the disruption and loss of services students have endured without over leveraging the institution’s financial resources.” Leaders also must stay mindful of institutional refunds’ impact on students’ federal financial aid to ensure that refund payments do not adversely affect students’ eligibility for future aid awards.

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