Why some colleges can give students a refund this spring and others can't

Prorating room and board fees will be a challenge for many institutions

As colleges and universities decided to close campuses and switch to remote learning models when the coronavirus crisis escalated, one of the biggest questions they have faced is whether or not students will be receiving a refund for their room and board.

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With the rapid shifts that schools made during this national crisis, many assume all universities can, and should, provide students with a refund.

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As president of Southeastern University, a private institution, I can tell you providing refunds is not a black and white issue.

Prorating room and board fees will be a challenge for many institutions, as those are attached to fixed costs that the school still has to pay regardless of whether there are students on campus or not.

Once this money is paid to vendors, it cannot be refunded to the institution. There are no refund clauses for the universities -- particularly as it relates to a crisis like the one we are facing today.

In fact, what many fail to recognize is that emergencies often result in additional costs. Costs related to prevention, mitigation -- including cleaning, acquisition of supplies and other emergency responses -- suddenly become necessary.

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Despite these unusual circumstances, the costs associated with operating a university, such as salaries, additional resources to run facilities and added expenses related to delivering remote learning do not go away.

While it may be feasible for some universities to provide refunds while absorbing the extra costs related to switching educational delivery models, it is not possible for all.

Schools such as Harvard College, Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have announced that they will be prorating students’ room and board expenses. These schools have incredible endowments - Harvard College alone has $40 billion in its endowment -- which they can rely on in emergency situations like these.

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However, there are many small, private universities that do not have that margin due to many costs upfront and being tuition-driven.

Many of these institutions simply do not have the robust endowments of more privileged schools. While these schools are providing an excellent education for their students -- many of whom are first-generation students, minority students or adult learners -- they simply cannot afford to absorb the financial burden incurred by refunding their students’ room and board.

Some schools still have not fully closed their campus during this crisis. At Southeastern University, we continue to keep our campus open to students who cannot go home.

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Many of these students are from highly impacted areas around the world. At this point, it is safer for them to remain on campus to wait the crisis out than it is for them to go home. We are still providing all the amenities for those students -- with an added emphasis on their health and safety -- while working even harder in this season to provide a best-in-class educational experience to the students who have left and are still receiving their education remotely.

For Southeastern University and our many sister institutions, we have not given up the mandate to unlock our students’ future through education.

We are doing everything we can to provide continued affordable and accessible education to our students so that they can have the knowledge and training they need to be successful once the crisis is over.

While schools should do everything they can to ease the financial burden of their students during this crisis, their first priority should be the uninterrupted delivery of education.

Dr. Kent Ingle presently serves as the President of Southeastern University (SEU) located in Lakeland, Florida. Southeastern University can be found online at seu.edu and their prayer community can be found on pray.com.

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