By Isabel Hicks | Illustration by Xixi Qin

After a month of ambiguity, some of the financial anxieties surrounding the coronavirus pandemic have finally been addressed. Colorado College announced last Thursday that they will be partially refunding room and board payments for the remainder of the semester. Without financial aid, the full cost of housing and meals for Spring 2020 — meaning the standard meal plan and on-campus housing — is $6478.

Only students who are no longer living and dining on campus will receive refunds. According to the announcement sent out by the school, refunds will be structured as follows. Depending on their “level” of housing and meal plan, those without financial aid will receive:

● Campus housing and full meal plan: $2,500

● Campus housing and apartment (or no) meal plan: $2,000

● Off-campus housing and full meal plan: $1,000

● Off-campus housing and apartment meal plan: $200

Students who only pay a portion of room and board cost due to financial aid will receive an amount equal to the percentage they pay. “For example, if the student pays 75% of the direct costs, the student will receive a refund equal to 75% of the amount listed above,” the announcement reads.

Students graduating in May who are eligible for a refund will receive a check at their home address. Checks were sent out on Thursday, April 16.

For students still enrolled at CC next year, refunds will be automatically applied to their bill for the 2020-2021 school year. If a continuing student prefers a refund instead, they can complete and submit a form listed on the COVID-19 announcement page. A link to download the form can be found here.

CC’s course of action mirrors the national trend of colleges and universities reimbursing students for room and board. These refunds are predicted to wreak financial havoc on higher education institutions. On Sunday, The Denver Post reported that The Association of American Universities estimated the auxiliary revenues of colleges and universities would fall by at least 25%, or $11.6 billion nationwide.

The Denver Post also reported that last week, CC was among more than a dozen higher education institutions across the state that signed onto a letter asking Colorado’s congressional delegation, senators, and state representatives for financial relief. The letter estimated room and board refunds could reach $100 million across Colorado.

Notably missing from these refunds is financial compensation for school tuition. Colleges and universities nationwide have switched from in-person classes to “distance learning,” where classes and lectures now take place online.

MarketWatch reported that many notable universities, like Harvard and Tufts, are still charging students full tuition for online classes. Colorado College is doing the same, along with other schools in Colorado including University of Colorado, Colorado State University (CSU), and Denver University (DU).

“A lot of colleges simply can’t afford to give [tuition] refunds,” Robert Kelchen, a Seton Hall University professor who studies financial access to higher education, told MarketWatch. “They don’t have the extra money to do that when they are still paying their employees.”

Announcements that college students will still have to pay full tuition for online classes have been met with both understanding and outrage. In Colorado, petitions from DU and CSU students calling for tuition refunds have been covered by local news outlets.

Denver7 News reported that as of April 2, the CSU petition had over 6,000 signatures to present to the administration. Yet students didn’t get the answer they were hoping for. In response to the petition, CSU sent out a note to its community saying that “since we anticipate completing the semester of instruction for all our students, tuition and fee refunds are currently not being offered.” The letter went on to say that remote learning was not less expensive for the university to provide, and that professors were working extremely hard to ensure their online classes were of high quality.

Though it may be true that distance learning costs the same as in-person instruction for a college, student concerns are more focused on the diminished quality of their education attributed to online classes. Before financial aid, CC’s cost of tuition for Blocks 7 and 8 this year was $14,522.

Javier Cantu ’22 said his online History of Colorado block does not compare with in-person classes. “For one, you don’t get the same face-to-face interactions with professors and peers,” he said. “There are so many limiting factors like a poor connection or outside distractions that simply don’t make learning the same. There is overall less motivation to do work.”

Sierra Romero ’22 said that tuition “should be refunded or at least lowered because the quality of online classes is significantly worse than in person.” Romero explained how with online classes, “it’s so hard to concentrate, participate, or even ask questions in the same manner. There isn’t an equal access to resources or even a space to take classes online.”

Romero added that she’s curious if CC will send a follow-up email explaining their choice of refunding only a portion of room and board costs. “I think it’s needed,” she said. “How did they come to this decision to refund money through a percentage system that is intentionally vague? I [think] students deserve an explanation — at the very least.”

Indeed, the cost of on-campus housing and a full meal plan before financial aid for Blocks 7 and 8 was $3,239, yet students who purchased these amenities are slated to receive only $2,500 — 77% of what they paid. Where is this extra money going?

Mirroring Romero’s sentiments, Cantu added that the refund policy is “unjust,” and that he believes “we deserve an explanation.”

Robert Moore, Vice President of Finance for CC, has one. Moore stressed that “there is no extra money. We used [college] reserves to make these reimbursements,” he said. “We didn’t lay off any Bon Appetit staff in Block 7, and that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. …We didn’t lay off housing staff; we paid all the bond payments…there wasn’t extra unspent money in any place here.”

Moore estimated these refunds will cost CC $2.5 million.

“I’m sorry people are upset,” he said. “We tried to give the best refunds we could and not lay off staff.”

As for tuition, Moore said, “We decided to stick with our current tuition policy. The reason is [students will] get the academic credit for Block 7 [and 8] whether it was in person or online.”

Moore explained that “we had all the costs necessary to produce that credit that we would have had in the classroom … and of course there was all this extra work and equipment to be sure all the students had a computer they could use.” Moore said that the school bought around 50 additional computers to provide to students without reliable access to technology.

“The school is losing a ton of money right now keeping the dorms open and helping provide for students who are struggling financially right now,” Lorea Zabaleta ’23 said. “I understand that [the coronavirus is] not CC’s fault, and they’re doing the best they can with the situation — especially in contrast to some other small schools.”

“While I wish we could get [more] money back, I’d rather it’s used to support the faculty and school right now,” Zabaleta concluded.

Spencer Fier ’22 had a similar thought process. “If the college can’t afford to reimburse tuition because that would put it at risk of not reopening, or that it can only reimburse tuition for those on financial aid, I’d have no problem with not getting reimbursed,” Fier said. “However … if the college can take the financial hit, it should reimburse everybody. Online school is not the education we pay for.”

Colorado College professors are trying hard to ensure their online classes are of equivalent quality to their past in-person instruction.

Associate Professor Wade Roberts is currently teaching Environmental Sociology via distance learning. Roberts said that surprisingly, the amount of labor he’s dedicated to his online class is actually considerably greater compared to classes he’s taught in person. Roberts has opted to split his class into sections of two based on time zone. “Instead of a class of 29, I now work with two classes of 14-15 students,” he said.

Roberts detailed some ways he’s tried to support students in their shift to online learning. “I tried to communicate to my class that I was broadly available to answer questions — whether over email or in one-on-one Zoom sessions,” he said. “I spent considerably more time with that kind of work than I usually would need to do in in-person classes. It’s been worth it, though.”

Roberts reflected on the advantages and disadvantages of Zoom, saying that “in-person classes allow for more emotion and energy, which can be helpful when conveying information or cultivating interest. One can do that a bit on Zoom, but not to the same extent.” Conversely, he said, the breakout groups function on Zoom “oddly makes small group discussion easier to do than when we’re on campus.”

When asked if he would support a partial refund on tuition, Roberts said that he’s not in a position to speak to that directly. “I’d only say that with respect to my own class, I know that the amount of dedicated labor has been considerably more than had I conducted this class in-person,” he said. “From what I’ve seen so far in students’ work, I’m confident that we are achieving the desired learning outcomes and that students are receiving a quality opportunity to advance their education.”

Professor Carol Neel spoke of her experience teaching an upper-level history block about mental illness online. “It was supposed to be an archives-based field course, so we were going to take a van to [the Colorado Mental Health Institute Museum in Pueblo]  … and look at the intake records and a number of other sources,” Neel said. “So when the shutdown came, I raced down to Pueblo and digitized 400 and some intake records from the 1880s and 1890s, and my students are working from that.”

When asked if online classes are comparable to the in-person instruction students are paying for, Neel explained that professors “were invited to cancel if we thought we were doing something that really couldn’t go online.”

Neel continued, “I don’t think my students are having a lesser experience … I think it’s a wash. There are some real advantages to this,” she said. “For one, my class has my utter attention compared to what is the normal distraction level in the History Department.”

“Obviously it’s not the liberal arts experience as we understand it,” Neel said. “But … from [a professor’s] point of view, we’re doing everything we can … I think in the end we’ll have all learned a lot from this.”

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