#Dispatches: Should Students Get Refunds?

This is a non-standard #Dispatches because instead of collating a collection of contributed reader comments, I’m drawing from a rich comment thread on FB and also sharing links. The question is: should students get tuition and fees refunds for having their classes switch to all-online, and losing the use of library libraries, labs, computer facilities, athletic facilities, and so on?

The story that launched the question on FB is here. College Students Are Rebelling Against Full Tuition After Instruction Moves Online (WaPo)

It prompted a long and heated comment thread. Find the whole thread here.

I’ll share some comments below, but before doing so, want to share that this question is gaining more and more steam.

Here is a piece by a univ. professor urging high school seniors to take a gap year and avoid enrolling in an all-online Fall semester entirely.

“”As an admitted freshman, it is not your responsibility to spend a fortune or go into debt to help a cash-strapped financially-mismanaged institution stay afloat. If they won’t be around a year from now without your tuition dollars, you’re better off finding that out without enrolling and accepting the substandard education that will be the best they can do under these circumstances.

You’ve already had some precious parts of your senior year stolen from you by this virus — sports championships, the prom, graduation. And if you’ve spent the past few years of your life looking forward to starting college in the fall of 2020, it’s understandable that you are still hoping it will all work out somehow, and you’ll be able to go. If you do, the school you attend may be like something out of The Leftovers, at best, a faded version of what you saw in those glossy online brochures, at worst, a decimated institution with a demoralized and shell-shocked remnant of faculty, staff, and students. If you defer or postpone, what’s the worst that can happen? Your dream school reopens in the fall, and provides in-person instruction all year without any problems. And you miss it, and become a member of the class of 2025, instead. That doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?”

Here is a story of a student and her father who are suing U of Colorado for tuition reimbursement.

“BOULDER — A lawsuit filed this week by a University of Colorado student and her father alleges that the university and the CU Board of Regents have breached their contracts with the student body by shutting down the Boulder campus amid the COVID-19 outbreak and refusing to refund tuition and fees.

Attorneys representing Emily Carpey, a CU student from Pennsylvania, and her father, Stuart Carpey, filed a class-action petition with U.S. District Court in Denver for reimbursements on behalf of all eligible CU students. The suit claims that CU has failed to live up to its end of the bargain with students who paid to attend classes and participate in collegiate life on campus.”

Here is a story from March that suggested lawsuits and other legal remedies might be appropriate.

In March, 2020, it’s as if all of America’s college and university students ordered sushi, and got a cheeseburger instead. Their schools are telling them they can eat it or go hungry. But are those really the only choices?

No. Students have at least three other options:

  • Rejection
  • Refund
  • Reperformance

To understand why, we need to begin by reminding ourselves that students are “buyers,” and universities are “sellers,” of the educational services provided primarily (but not solely) by faculty members. For all the talk of “inclusion” and “belonging,” any student whose tuition is in arrears discovers very quickly that the university is a place where you have to pay to play. Now is not the time for students to lose sight of their rights as customers.”

I am not taking a position on this question in this blog post.

Below, here are some of the many responses. I will try and group them thematically but please read critically. The first set of responses are from university instructors emphasizing how hard they are working.

Then there are students and their parents who disagree with the logic of refunds, arguing their education remains of equivalent value even if it has gone online, and expressing appreciation for faculty efforts.

Some students and faculty, though, feel strongly that nobody should have to pay for resources they cannot use.

This comment encapsulates that view:

Some students are further asking why faculty seem to only care about their own workload and circumstances, without regard for the students’.

Many also want to remind indignant faculty that the exorbinant tuition and fees pay for far more than just the work hours faculty put into teaching.

The situation is undoubtedly having the effect of pitting students and faculty against each other.

In the end though, students demanding refunds, suing institutions, or staying away, will hasten the larger collapse, there is no question of that.

Some observers point out the slippery slope of further viewing education as a commodity that can be traded, with fear for what it means post-pandemic.

Many are just asking for a bit of patience and understanding all around.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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