After the UofA cancelled in-person classes and closed most on-campus housing and dining facilities for the remainder of the spring semester, some students are concerned they won’t get partial refunds for the expenses they paid to the university.
Amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19, UA officials announced March 12 that in-person classes would be cancelled and moved online effective March 16. They announced the closure of all university-owned housing March 23, and students had to vacate the facilities by April 3.
Because students have had to move home and are facing an educational experience different from the one they signed up for, some think the UofA should offer partial refunds for services that can no longer be used.
Gabrielle Willingham, a senior, said she thinks students should receive reimbursements for the half of their semester-long housing and dining contracts that couldn’t be completed in university housing. She thinks the university owes students a partial refund for services, like room and board, that it promised to provide but could not, she said.
“The analogy is like, ‘If I paid you six months in advance to cut my hair, and then you closed your business after two, I would expect you to pay me back the rest of my haircutting contract,’”Willingham said. “Because you didn’t provide the service.”
A double room in Pomfret Hall, the cheapest dorm on campus, costs $3,098 per semester, or $1,549 per half-semester. A double room in Founders Hall, the most expensive dorm, costs $4,293 per semester, or $2,146.50 per half-semester, according to University Housing.
The most affordable on-campus meal plan costs $1,270 per semester, or $635 per half-semester, while the most expensive costs $2,185, or $1092.50 per half-semester.
The UofA is awaiting guidance on potential refunds from the university system and the UA Board of Trustees, said John Thomas, manager of University Communications.
“At the moment, our first priority is ensuring our campus community is safe and healthy,” Thomas said.
Derek Munter, a senior, said he is most concerned about the differences in cost for on-campus and online students. Munter thinks all students should receive refunds reflecting the difference in price between in-person and online courses, he said.
The standard online tuition rate for both in-state and out-of-state undergraduate students is $252.53 per credit hour, the same as the standard tuition for Arkansas residents taking in-person courses, according to UofA Online. However, the per-hour tuition for out-of-state students taking in-person classes is $801.87.
Without financial aid, out-of-state students taking 15 hours would pay $8,240.10 more for in-person courses than for online, a difference of $4,120.05 per half-semester.
Munter said he is also frustrated that students have received no promise of partial refunds for fees covering services and activities they can no longer access if they have moved home, such as healthcare at the Pat Walker Health Center and university-sponsored recreational events.
In spring 2020, non-first-year undergraduates taking 15 credit hours were charged $697 in fees, not counting college-specific fees, which vary depending on the student’s college. These included a facilities fee, health fee, library fee, student media fee, network and data systems fee, student activity fee and transit fee.
All online bachelor’s programs besides nursing come with three fees: network and data systems, library and off-campus. Most bachelor’s students taking 15 online-only hours would pay $655.35 in fees, and no college-specific fees.
Munter does not think the university administration is focusing on the best interests of students, some of whom are struggling with sudden unemployment and student loan payments, he said. He would be very surprised if the Board voted to grant any refunds, he said.
“I think the university worries about getting money more than they do the students,” Munter said. “This is a tough time for a lot of people. To pay the full price for a different product is not fair at all.”
UA System President Don Bobbitt said he plans to speak to the Board of Trustees at their special session April 8 in favor of partial refunds for room and board costs only. He will recommend the Board votes to allow each system school to decide how much to refund students, as each school’s financial situation is different, he said.
“The board is deciding to (discuss refunds), even though from a legal perspective they didn’t have to,” Bobbitt said. “I think the key thing here in my mind is that we want to be compassionate and sensitive to the needs of our students and their families, given how seriously this is affecting all of us.”
Bobbitt intends to recommend that the Board direct the system schools to apply refunds to non-graduating students’ accounts for next semester, and to reimburse graduating seniors directly, he said.
Willingham said she is not very optimistic, but she still hopes that the Board will grant refunds to students. She thinks it is important to give some relief to students who might be struggling with unemployment, loss of housing, and other financial strains, she said.
“I’m interested in the overall general good of the student body,” Willingham said. “Because if we’re not thriving and we’re not capable of paying our bills, then we’re not capable of learning.”