Colleges around the country are beginning to tell students not to expect a refund for housing expenses if the pandemic forces another spate of abrupt campus closures. The announcements come as more colleges and universities provide details about what dorm life may look like this fall.
Although most institutions offered refunds to students who had to vacate dorms in the spring, a handful of large institutions have now added language to their housing contracts saying refunds aren’t guaranteed if students have to once again leave campus midway through the academic term. Some contracts also note that students assume liability in case there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in the dorms.
At a time when many families are strapped for cash in the midst of a global pandemic, on-campus room and board fees total nearly as much as in-state tuition — on average between $11,000 and $12,000 a year. And students from Washington to North Carolina were frustrated to learn they may not see that money back even if they’re sent home. One institution, Washington State University, even backtracked on its decision after receiving considerable pushback.
These new terms often came after families had already turned down offers of admission from other institutions and put down a housing deposit earlier in the summer. Off-campus housing options may be limited at this point and would also require students to sign binding leases. Many deadlines to accept the new housing terms come later this week.
When Laura Comino, a senior political science major at University of North Carolina-Greensboro (UNCG), found out at the end of June that her university’s housing addendum included a section stating that it could not guarantee refunds in case of campus closure, she was worried about how it would impact students financially. So she started a petition demanding the college offer refunds if students are forced out. It had more than 39,000 signatures as of Thursday.
Comino is planning on living in an on-campus apartment, but she says she is in a relatively good situation. It’s the students who don’t have a safe place to go that motivated her to start the petition.
“I would stand to lose a lot of money, but it's an event that my family would survive with enough to be able to continue my education,” she says. “Universities are businesses and to run a business, you need to pay the people that run the business,” Comino adds. “We recognize that UNCG and the UNC system institutions don't have an endowment the size of Harvard.”
But she was disappointed by the decision because UNC has always embraced the idea of “putting students first.” She says the university should prioritize putting a roof over students heads over other things like funding athletics.
Kevin McClure, a higher education professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, says that many colleges offered refunds in the spring because they were largely guided by what other institutions were doing. Most also didn’t have pandemic clauses in their housing contracts, and there was an assumption that it was an emergency response to a one-time event.
“But now that we're entering fall, and it looks like there's the possibility that something like that could happen again,” he says. “I think they're trying to prepare for that and build it into the contract because they can always fall back on the contract as an enforceable document to protect their interests.”
After the March closures, institutions paid out millions of dollars in housing and dining refunds, which were only partially offset by federal relief funding. With the exception of the most well-resourced universities, few can afford to offer such large payouts again, especially in light of state budget cuts for higher education.
Yet McClure says that families expect more from universities than they do traditional landlords. "I think parents and students expect from on-campus housing a different level of perhaps care and flexibility that I just don't think really exists much anymore," he says.
The University of North Carolina system had previously issued guidance that institutions should try to ensure that housing contracts allowed them to temporarily close campus housing, restrict resident’s use of campus housing, and not provide refunds of housing fees. But significant discretion was left up to each of the system’s 17 campuses. UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, announced that its “current approach” is to offer prorated housing refunds.
Earlier this week, the UNC system clarified that its guidance to alert students that refunds might not be available is not a definitive decision that financial relief won’t be offered. “Regrettably, the current uncertain economic environment and health outlook precludes us from making any definitive decisions or commitments now on future refunds,” according to a statement.
Comino has also met with senior administrators at UNCG who said students should not expect refunds, but the university will offer them if financial support becomes available. UNCG students have until Saturday to cancel their housing agreement.
Representatives of other institutions have said that the goal of adding language about refunds to the housing contracts is to be transparent with students about what they’re signing up for and the reality of university finances.
Adam Freeman, spokesperson for the University of South Florida, said closing its residence halls is a last resort, but if the university is forced to do so, refunds would not be issued. In March, USF paid almost $13 million in housing and dining refunds.
The university currently plans to keep residence halls open even if classes switch to remote instruction. Students who find out that their course schedule will be online prior to the start of classes will be allowed to cancel their housing contracts until the beginning of August.
A spokesperson for the University of Maryland also said the university wanted families to be able make informed decisions about housing and finances. The university’s housing addendum says it is not obligated to issue refunds or credits if housing facilities close.
Days after Washington State University said campus residents would have to pay for meal plans and dorms even if the university "unexpectedly requires" students to vacate campus, the university switched course. Now it says it will allow refunds if the university receives a public health order requiring it to shut down its residence halls due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Greg Roa, an incoming first-year student from Redondo Beach, California who received a scholarship to study engineering at WSU, said he is waiting until the last minute to make a decision. “I understand that funding is the main concern for these colleges, but if I’m not going to eat and sleep there, what am I paying for?” he says. “I have a good three days to figure it out.”
Student government leaders at WSU had issued a statement condemning the housing addendum. “A lot of students are pretty upset about the whole situation, especially since the university is already putting a 2.5% increase on tuition,” Curtis Cohen, student body president, said prior to the policy change. “A lot of students are just not happy that the university is putting that financial risk on students instead of taking it on themselves.”
Cohen, a senior finance major, said that he is glad to see the change, but that he still had some concerns. “For instance, the refunds are only offered if the state forces the university to vacate the dorms,” he says. “Otherwise, if the school goes online and the dorms continue to remain open, students will not get a refund.”
University spokesman Phil Weiler noted that housing and dining at WSU are self-supporting operations that are funded by student fees. Last spring, WSU refunded $11 million when the institution moved to distance learning. In fall 2020, housing and dining will already face a $20 million shortfall due to decreased occupancy mandated by COVID-19 protocols.
“This is why the university was initially not going to offer refunds if we have to close residence halls next academic year,” he wrote in an email. “The financial implications to the housing and dining operation will be extreme.”
Mark St. Louis, associate general counsel at St. Petersburg College in Florida, notes that most on-campus housing contracts are licenses, rather than leases. The difference is that a lease grants a renter exclusive possession of a property for a fixed term whereas a license allows someone to occupy or do something on someone else’s property. Colleges do that because it gives them more discretion to move students around or close facilities, he says.
As to whether students have any recourse if they contract COVID-19 while living in the dorms, St. Louis says it depends. He says that institutions are hoping that students are coming to campus with their eyes wide open that they are assuming some risk. But even if students sign a contract assuming responsibility, colleges could still be at fault if they aren't giving out proper notices if there's an outbreak or taking appropriate measures to sanitize and clean, he says.
“At the end of the day, it's all going to come down to reasonableness,” he says.
And the decision to shift the risk to students might backfire, St. Louis says. “In certain circumstances, that might be a good legal move, but at the end of the day it might not be a [good] long-term business decision if you want to keep students coming back to the institution,” he says.