By Cecilia Clark
Many colleges are welcoming students back to learning in person and living in dormitories this fall semester. It looms over everything: campuses can close again at any time.
With COVID-19 cases still high, many universities are developing contingency closure plans in conjunction with their reopening arrangements.
At the same time, the pandemic is fueling a new debate over whether universities should charge the same tuition for classes online and in person. Tuition generally covers the cost of instruction (salaries, software, labs, and so on) and that cost in many schools may have increased.
The University of North Carolina Wilmington, as an exception, has a different cost structure for online, hybrid, and face-to-face classes. Still, he announced that students will not receive a tuition refund if in-person classes are moved online this fall. And, after his sister school’s turnaround in Chapel Hill, he told students to prepare for a similar transition if cases increased.
That leaves freshman Owen Palmer weighing the possibility that the education he is paying for is not the one he receives. “I’m taking a risk because (the university) mentioned that they can’t make refunds,” says Palmer. For him, the risk is worth it, but he wonders what he will do if the campus has to close.
Here’s what he and other students can look forward to as the fall unfolds.
Don’t expect a break in tuition
Some schools have cut tuition. Hampton University offers students a 15% discount, bringing undergraduate tuition to $ 12,519. Other schools are offering additional scholarships and grants.
But tuition goes down and extra help is not the norm.
“If I had to place bets, I’d say a lot of colleges (will freeze tuition) until they have a better idea of the economy,” says Arun Ponnusamy, academic director at college admissions and application counseling firm Collegewise. “But there will be other universities that say, ‘We need money to run this school.’
That may already be happening. George Mason University in Virginia approved a $ 450 tuition increase. The University of Michigan approved a 1.9% tuition increase. Both schools are planning a combination of online and in-person instruction.
Refunds for meals and lodging are likely
Many colleges are not publishing their contingency closure plans, or how refunds will work. But students can see how their school handled the reimbursements in the spring to gauge how the fall would play out.
Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University has provided rebates for on-campus housing and meal plans, says William Hudson Jr., the school’s vice president of student affairs. If the campus has to close this fall, Hudson says the reimbursement structure “would probably be the same.”
Other colleges also offered direct reimbursements for students. For example, Temple University automatically deposited partial room and board refunds into students’ bank accounts. The University of North Carolina at Wilmington has provided prorated refunds for room and board.
But some colleges opted for account credit.
- The University of Arkansas reimbursed approximately 20% of room and board costs to student accounts. They have not announced an official plan in the event of a fall closure, but staff members hope it will be the same.
- The University of Alabama offered a prorated reimbursement for room, board, and parking. Students can receive a cash refund immediately or apply that amount and an additional 10% as account credit for the fall.
How can you prepare?
If you plan to return to campus accommodation, contact your school and ask about their contingency closure plans. You will want to know what factors would cause it to turn off again. This could be a COVID-19 outbreak on campus of a certain size, an increase in local cases, or other factors.
You can’t stop a campus from closing, but if you know the metrics your school is watching, you can anticipate and react with more confidence.
- Do home backup plans if your campus closes. Determine if you will go home, stay with a friend, get your own apartment, or something else. Communicate your intentions with those you plan to stay with or search for affordable apartments in advance. That way, if the campus suddenly closes, you know exactly where you are going.
- Ask your university about emergency funds and grants whether closing the campus will cause you financial hardship. Many universities have funds available for students.
- Plan how you would use a refund. If your school offers a direct refund, consider whether you will need that money for living expenses. If you don’t need the money for living expenses, send the refund to your student loan servicer. Doing so will keep your overall loan balance low and save you money in the long run.
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Cecilia Clark is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: [email protected]