Universities across the state that have shifted their semesters completely online due to the coronavirus pandemic are working to figure out whether they’ll provide refunds to students who’ve paid for expenses like on-campus housing and meal plans.
Concerns about the spread of COVID-19 spurred universities to shut down on-campus classes and events midsemester, with some closing dorms while many students had left for spring break.
At Yale University, students will receive prorated refunds for room and board. The university will continue to provide food and housing for students who can’t find accommodations before the end of the semester, and for those who can, Yale will foot the bill for their travel expenses. Work-study students will continue to get paid through the end of the semester. According to the university, “members of the Yale community” have tested positive for COVID-19.
On Wednesday, the University of Connecticut announced that students will receive prorated refunds for housing, dining plans and study abroad programs that were discontinued to prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to UConn, the payments will be credited toward students’ fall semester fees. Students set to graduate or who do not return to UConn for other reasons will receive refunds. For those whose housing and dining were covered in part or full by financial aid, the money will return to the financial aid and scholarship accounts for their future use.
The refunds are estimated to cost $30 million, equivalent to the prorated amounts for the time when students no longer could use their university housing and dining plans -- about seven weeks, according to the university.
“We hope very loudly that there will be federal and state assistance with this, but we couldn’t afford to wait to find out,” UConn Board of Trustees Chairman Dan Toscano said in a statement. “It is not [a matter] we take lightly, but it is for sure the right decision to make for our students at this time.”
Quinnipiac University spokesperson John Morgan said the university is still figuring out how to address this issue. According to Morgan, the university expects to provide some level of refunds for housing and meal plans for those graduating. For students who plan to return to Quinnipiac, the credit would be applied toward next year’s costs.
“The university has been focused on the health and education of our students and has not yet resolved the financial impact of this crisis,” Morgan said.
As it works to address financial challenges, the university has established a “student care fund” for those “struggling with unexpected expenses including housing, food, resources for remote learning, storage, medical and travel and loss of income from their on-or-off-campus jobs or work-study positions.”
Students at Central, Eastern, Western and Southern Connecticut state universities will receive refunds for room and board fees now that the rest of the semester will take place online. CSCU President Mark Ojakian said the schools didn’t want to create more challenges for students who were already caught off guard by all of the sudden changes.
“To be told when you leave for spring break, take whatever you need for the next few weeks in order to be able to begin conducting your classes online was something I think that was unsettling to many,” Ojakian said. “And then to be told that all of their instruction was going to be happening online for the rest of the semester was equally, if not more unsettling.”
Speaking from his home, Ojakian said the pandemic was “far worse” than “anybody ever imagined” and that it “wasn't in the best interests of students, faculty or staff to return to campus for health and safety reasons.” The network of four universities anticipates losing around $24 million because of the refunds.
“We always knew that we didn’t want to disadvantage students any more than they had to be because of the pandemic that we’re all dealing with,” Ojakian said. “We will deal with the financial implications of what that means for the universities in our system as we move forward,” Ojakian said, “but it was the right thing to always do by our students.”
Work-study students at the four schools with federal or university wages will continue to get paid through the end of the semester. Federal student financial aid officers are working directly with students to sort out refunds for grants and, if applicable, loans.
“This is a complex process, but our universities are working to issue credits and refunds as expeditiously as possible,” Ojakian said in a statement. “We understand that these housing refunds are important monetary sources for our students as they begin to adjust to a new normal of online learning. I applaud the leaders of our universities for taking this important action.”
According to Ojakian, each campus is assessing the best way to disburse refunds to students, including direct deposit and mailed checks.
“The Board of Regents is committed to ensuring all students have the tools necessary to continue their education during this turbulent time,” Board of Regents Chair Matt Fleury said. “By ensuring students and their families quickly receive refunds for unused housing fees, our universities are helping ease the financial burdens caused by the COVID-19 outbreak and ensuing economic downturn.”
Ojakian said students have reached out to him personally, expressing their concerns about how the university plans to wrap up an unexpected twist to their semester, and for others, their college careers.
“Many of them, quite honestly, were concerned about commencement and what we were going to do or what we were thinking to do to recognize the achievements of our incredible students who will have graduated this spring,” Ojakian said, “even though there won’t be an in-person May commencement ceremony.”
As the state prepares for a potential surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations, Ojakian said the four universities have been working closely with Gov. Ned Lamont’s statewide emergency response team to assess whether dorms, gymnasiums or other areas will be temporarily converted to house hospital beds or first responders.