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Op-ed: Colleges owe students refunds — especially if they want them back next fall

On March 15, I boarded a Paris flight back to my parents’ home in Southern California. I’d spent 68 days studying abroad in France instead of the planned 123 — an incredible life and educational experience cut short by an international pandemic.

While the story of a SoCal girl having to set down her cheese-and-wine pairing and leave the decadent sights of Europe due to a global pandemic isn’t particularly moving, it is reflective of a broader injustice happening right now. Each academic year, over 300,000 American college students study abroad, and most of them also returned abruptly this spring because of the spread of coronavirus — not to mention the nearly 20 million students attending universities across the country in general, for whom in-person classes and resources were almost immediately suspended.

For all of us students, whether we were studying abroad or holing up in the on-campus library or using on-campus mental health services, we’ve all paid for resources we no longer have access to. And yet so far, not one student will receive any sort of refund for the lost experiences of a semester already paid in full.

It may not be obvious, but when students — or, let’s be honest, many parents — cut a check to universities each term, that money is not strictly for professor salaries. Included in costs of attendance, which has increased by over 25% in the last decade, are fees for many essential resources, such as campus housing and meals. When schools, including George Washington University where I attend, shuttered their doors in March, students also lost access to mental health services, fitness facilities, career centers, academic advisors, crisis hotlines, library resources, and tutors.

The expectation that students should shell out tens of thousands of dollars for occasionally functional Zoom classes run by sometimes technologically challenged professors while forgoing already-funded student services ... is at best unfair — and at worst, dangerous.

Most universities have made good-faith efforts to provide an uncompromised learning experience by quickly transitioning to online courses and exploring ways to engage students remotely. However, when college students resumed classes online to fulfill our academic obligations, we did so without our schools acknowledging the fact that our situation had fundamentally changed; we might still be in classes, but we’re no longer able to access the myriad services that our tuition fees are also supposed to provide for us. Tuition can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000 annually at U.S. universities, and that doesn’t include the housing that many students have paid thousands for and now can no longer use.

While some universities, including George Washington University, have offered prorated refunds for housing, many are still undecided. Some have refused outright. And the expectation that students should shell out tens of thousands of dollars for occasionally functional Zoom classes run by sometimes technologically challenged professors while forgoing already-funded student services like on-campus libraries and mental health counseling, as if our situation hadn’t changed at all, is at best unfair — and at worst, dangerous.

I’m lucky enough to be able to wait out quarantine orders from my childhood home in California. However, millions of students lack this luxury. When they leave for school each semester, they do so relying on university housing for lodging and dining plans for food. For these students especially, prorated or partial refunds from universities are necessary to preserve their livelihood.

There are those who argue that college students could file for unemployment benefits to offset these costs. However, these benefits only become available at age 20, and even with them, affording full tuition would be impossible. While the amount varies from state to state, the average person receives $378 a week in unemployment benefits. Compare that to a college tuition, and it barely begins to cover the cost of classes alone.

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Universities too are suffering financially due to coronavirus, with many already warning of substantial decreases in financial aid offers for the upcoming academic year. Not only will this discourage students from pursuing a higher education, it will likely be a deciding factor for many already-enrolled students in determining if they are able to return in the fall. From private polling to Twitter threads, indications are that high school seniors across the country are deferring enrollment for at least a year, and potentially longer, as they struggle to justify paying outrageous tuition costs in exchange for online classes and a pared down version of the “college experience.” Furthermore, a significant portion of college students who are only a year or two away from graduation are contemplating not returning to school next year at all, some due to the fact that financial aid packages have been slashed and others because the educational experience awaiting them this fall is fundamentally different.

This is why at least partial refunds should be made available for every college student, not only for the spring term’s housing and dining fees, but also to compensate for lost in-class learning and on-campus resources, for which we have already paid. At the same time, cuts to financial aid funding should be a last consideration, as this would disproportionately harm low-income students who are just as deserving of an education but who may lack the financial and other means to deal with the fallout from coronavirus.

Now more than ever, support for the next generation of leaders must be a top priority. Should universities fail to issue refunds, the fallout from coronavirus could be more devastating than we realize. If gifted, motivated students defer their enrollment or do not return to campus, then who will be the doctors of the future to treat patients of the next pandemic? Who will be the scientists to cure our most deadly diseases? Who will be the artists to lift our spirits during troubling times? Who will be the lawyers and politicians to advocate for safer communities in the face of global distress? I’m afraid to contemplate the answer to these questions.

Dahvi Cohen is pursuing a double major in political science and human services and social justice at The George Washington University with plans to return in the fall. She is also a college fellow at the Jewish Center for Justice.