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Op-Ed: Universities Should Refund Students for Classes Lost to Coronavirus

As a graduate student at Georgetown University studying biomedical sciences policy and advocacy, I recently received an email from the administration informing me that all courses would be moved to an online platform, undergraduates were asked to move out of the dorms and graduate students were asked to not return to campus.
Georgetown is not alone in the rush to lock down the novel coronavirus, and I’m certainly not alone in stepping back to evaluate what this means for my life and education.
As of this week, more than 250 American colleges and universities have announced closures or a shift to an online platform in the wake of the growing COVID-19 outbreak, according to a crowdsourced spreadsheet updating the nation on university closures.
As a result, millions of American students are being displaced from university housing, losing their campus jobs and wondering where the many services they prepaid for this semester disappeared to.
While the decision to dramatically change the lives of students may have been driven by the best interest of student health, in reality, the financial hardship and stress thrust upon our nation’s 18-22-year-olds may be causing a larger burden than the virus itself.
Some of the nation’s most prestigious universities with the highest price tags are aggressively pursuing a response to halt the spread of COVID-19 by instantly and haphazardly moving courses to online platforms and demanding students move out of the dorms in just a few days’ notice.
Simultaneously, they are requiring the students they serve to bear nearly all the costs associated with this unprecedented shift. While a very small number of these universities, including Harvard, Smith and Duke, have announced limited refunds to students living in campus housing, the majority of schools have thus far ignored this issue, leaving students and their families to foot the bill.
For example, students at several prestigious universities in the U.S. have not received a single penny in refunds for unused room and board or any of the cost savings the universities gain by moving to an online platform.
Stanford, with an endowment of $27.7 billion, required its students to move out of campus housing in days and moved to an online platform, but has been silent on whether students will be reimbursed for the change in platform or living arrangements.
Similarly, Princeton, with an endowment of $26.1 billion, required its students to move out and has also refused to address this issue.
The ever-evolving social impacts of the virus to everyone are enough to bear without the financial confusion left for college students.
While a partial refund offered to students for unused room and board is certainly significant — The College Board estimates the average cost for room and board to be well over $11,000 at a public, in-state school and nearly $13,000 at a private school — these figures often pale in comparison to tuition costs and student fees.
Students at online universities pay significantly less in tuition and student fees than their peers enrolled at traditional universities. While tuition rates vary across programs, comparing the costs of online courses to traditional on-campus courses at ranked private universities demonstrates the online cost to be less than half of that on-campus.
Online students also don’t need to consider the additional costs associated with student fees typical at a traditional college, like laboratory fees, payments to fund student government associations or even parking permits that often dent college students’ bank accounts more than most realize. 
Students’ financial stability has quickly become threatened due to the closure of campuses during the growth of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many who worked on campus through student employment or work-study programs now face unemployment and may be unable to fully repay student loans or submit their rent payment next month. Students who rely on on-campus dining options may have to skip trips to the grocery store. Those without a home to return to or an unstable living situation off campus are left with no choices and potentially nowhere else to go.
Some universities are taking measures to lessen the impact on those students most at risk, and this must be applauded. It’s not enough for the masses, however, who seek clarity on their financial future given the sudden disruption.
While our nation’s universities don’t often operate through a traditional business model — putting the needs of the paying customer, the student, before anything else — it is precisely this model which must be adopted to offset the financial burden to the millions of college students facing closed campuses, one by one.
Surely, this isn’t happening, or at least not fast enough, for America’s financially vulnerable college students.
I applaud the preliminary announcements by the Trump administration of student loan relief measures and a handful of universities announcing at least partial refunds for housing changes, but we must urge all colleges and universities suspending the semester or shifting to an online platform to consider a timely equitable refund for students’ tuition and fees payments as well.
The financial future of our nation’s next generation could depend on it.

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