Stanford cancels some housing, dining charges; Harvard, Ohio State to return part of room-and-board fees
By Melissa Korn and Douglas Belkin, The Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2020
As colleges and universities nationwide shut down dorms and dining halls, cancel athletic events and commencements and shift to remote instruction amid the growing threat of the novel coronavirus, many families have a pressing question: Will there be a refund?
To the frustration of families who have invested tens of thousands of dollars and whose own finances may feel suddenly precarious, the answer depends on the school.
Stanford University, which has moved all classes online, will eliminate housing and dining charges for the spring quarter, which starts March 30, for students who have left campus. But it isn’t prorating the last few weeks of winter quarter, which were also affected.
And the university states on a frequently-asked-questions section of its website: “No, we are not going to reduce tuition.”
Jessica de la Paz, a senior who moved back home to nearby San Jose to finish out her college career online, said she isn’t too worried about the winter-term charges, given how frenzied everything has been in recent days. But she is disappointed about spring tuition.
“It doesn’t seem fair to me to pay for an education that I’m not receiving,” said Ms. de la Paz, 22 years old. “It seems very opaque right now, what my money is going towards.”
Much of her learning came from such interactions as faculty office hours and study groups, not the lectures themselves. It is hard to recreate that remotely, she said.
Some schools, including Harvard University, Ohio State University and the University of California, San Diego, have told students and their families that they will get back some portion of room and board fees for the weeks not spent on campus.
Others are asking parents to sit tight while they deliberate. They may mail out checks, or credit accounts for the coming term—an inadequate response, say parents who also now have the expense of having their children at home.
At public, four-year colleges, average net tuition and fees were $3,870 for the current year, according to the College Board, and net room and board totaled $11,510. For private, nonprofit schools, those figures were $14,380 and $12,990, respectively. Many colleges collect a large share of their revenue from room and board, and other fees besides tuition.
“Many families are losing income now, and may need the money. But colleges need the money, too,” said Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. “They don’t have the kind of operating margin that lets them refund a couple of million dollars in the short term.”
Smith College in Northampton, Mass., charges about $17,000 a year in room and board, though not all 2,400 students who live on campus pay the full rate.
Students have been asked to leave campus by Friday, and the school expects to reimburse families about 25% of the annual rate, or $4,000, said Audrey Smith, vice president of enrollment at Smith College.
“This is definitely a financial blow,” Ms. Smith said.
About half of students have left Albion College in Michigan, where the campus remains open but classes are online only. President Mauri Ditzler said he hasn’t yet decided how to handle rebates.
One challenge for schools is they have no way to make up the lost revenue now, partway through spring term. They can’t re-rent rooms that sit empty, or stuffed with abandoned belongings as students scrambled to depart on short notice.
Paying for food is also more complicated than simply charging by the day.
“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.”
At Georgetown College, a private, Christian school in Kentucky with about 1,000 students, spring break was extended by a week and then classes are moving online.
Despite that—and even if campus is closed for the rest of the year—students won’t receive a rebate for room and board.
“The college is not in a financial position to offer any rebates on housing or meal plans,” it posted on its website.
Georgetown has an endowment of about $30 million, and students pay an average of $20,000 for tuition, room and board—far less than the sticker price of $51,000.
“Our education is almost entirely paid for by tuition, room and board,” said Jonathan Sands Wise, Georgetown College’s vice president for enrollment management. “You can’t break one piece out, we’re almost 80% through the year.”
There are new costs associated with moving classes online, he said, and he fears future donations will decline due to the pandemic’s impact on the economy. Mr. Sands Wise doesn’t think the school will be able to collect insurance for any losses stemming from the pandemic.
The school’s policy is to offer a prorated rebate for room and board if a student leaves within the first six weeks of the semester. That deadline has passed.
“We understand some people feel they are going to be in tough financial situations, we understand if people say, ‘I didn’t get room and food and I shouldn’t have to pay for it,’” he said. “We understand if some people are upset, but we’re not able to waive our policy.”
Jacob Locke, a junior from Alabama studying at Georgetown College, said he loves the school but considers the policy a mistake. He expects to graduate with about $50,000 in debt, and the idea that some of that will be for services he couldn’t use was hard to accept.
“They have it in small print in the contract, so I guess there’s not much you can do,” he said. “But it just feels like a kick in the face to the students.”