US Universities Struggle to Reimburse Fees as Campuses Close
The priority for most university students in the United States is clear: to move their belongings off campus as quickly as possible and set up to take classes online.
As campuses and their satellites abroad close — many of them incrementally — students and parents are wondering how to pay for this rapid shift in learning.
"They're being very intentionally vague with their emails, because we can tell they don't have much figured out themselves," Lucia Macchi, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, told VOA.
While we spoke, Macchi, who had been staying in Florida with her family over the spring break holiday, was on her way back to her dorm room at the University of Pennsylvania to gather her belongings — especially materials she would need to continue her classes remotely.
But while the University of Pennsylvania, like most schools across the country, is shutting down to quell the spread of the coronavirus, students say the policy on reimbursement for room and board is still unclear.
"They said that they could have a partial reimbursement or credit applied to next year," Macchi said. "They're not sure what exactly their programs are going to look like."
"But it won't be automatic," she said. "It will be something that the students have to be proactive about."
Room and board costs are not the only fees students and parents worry about losing. Besides meal plans, on-campus jobs, and campus activities fees, students also bear the financial burden of storing their items and buying expensive last-minute tickets to go home.
A glance at many university websites about coronavirus shows a number of plans for reimbursements of costs.
American University in Washington, D.C., has detailed its plans to financially assist students.
"Students do not need to apply for refunds. Student accounts will automatically produce an ACH refund to all students with banking information on file," the school's website reads, under a list of which costs will be refunded.
Many students trying to evacuate less-organized universities on short notice say they don't have time to wait in line at the financial aid office to have all their questions answered.
"Going into the financial aid office itself is a very time-consuming and exhausting thing for students to consider right now," Jordan Barton, class of 2023 at Harvard University in Massachusetts, told VOA.
Harvard said it will pro-rate room and board costs for students and apply a $200 credit for storage or travel.
But for students like Barton, who has to purchase a last-minute ticket to Middleton, Texas, $200 won't be enough. He says it's not clear whether students like him will see more of a reimbursement.
"I hope I can shoot an email here in a few days and see if I can get any reimbursement because otherwise it's going to be significantly difficult to have stable income over the course of the next few months," Barton added.
Parent groups on Facebook are sharing advice about how to apply for reimbursements through university websites.
Aside from all the costs and potential reimbursements, college students across the U.S. have taken to social media to remind universities that there are numerous barriers to simply shifting classes online.
"Not every college student has broadband at home. Not every college student can eat without the meal plan/work study," Em Ballou, a junior at Middlebury College in Vermont, wrote on Twitter.
"Coming to college is a source of humongous economic and housing stability for several months out of the year. Going home...puts an enormous strain on our families," Barton said.
Barton is still unsure how his work-study job will be affected at Harvard and is concerned about the burden he will place on his father, a single parent of two, without an additional income.
Some students have noted that online classes generally cost less than in-person ones. A petition started by a student from Indiana's Purdue University to reimburse tuition costs as well as room and board fees has more than 600 signatures.
Of course, in a few rare cases, students are praising their school's quick handling of the situation.
"Gotta say im super impressed with the way @DavidsonCollege is handling this situation," Ashly, class of 2022, wrote on Twitter, detailing that the North Carolina school which serves under 2,000 students is ensuring full pay for work-study students, providing laptops, free storage units, and airport shuttles among other amenities.
In most cases, U.S. universities and colleges followed similar trajectories, first announcing they would move classes online but that campus facilities would remain open, and then either all at once or through a rapid series of announcements, finally deciding the campuses would close entirely.
In the California Bay Area, six counties have issued a shelter-in-place order, meaning that students on campus are encouraged to remain in their dorms as opposed to moving out, even though the University of California, Berkeley has said all instruction will be remote for the rest of the semester.
Still, those choosing to move off campus for the rest of the semester are able to apply for a pro-rated refund of their room and board costs.
How quickly and efficiently colleges and universities will be able to deliver on promises of reimbursement is yet to be seen.
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Biden Cancels Federal Student Loans for Nearly 153,000 Borrowers
President Joe Biden said Wednesday that while a college degree was still a ticket to a better life, that ticket is often too expensive, as he announced he was canceling federal student loans for nearly 153,000 borrowers.
Biden, who is in the midst of a three-day campaign swing through California, made the announcement as part of a new repayment plan that offers a faster path to forgiveness, putting the spotlight on his debt cancellation efforts in his reelection campaign.
"Too many Americans are still saddled with unsustainable debt in exchange for a college degree," he said from a local library before he went on to campaign-related events. Loan relief helps the greater economy, he said, because "when people have a student debt relief, they buy homes. They start businesses, they contribute. They engage."
The administration began sending email notifications on Wednesday to some of the borrowers who will benefit from what the White House has called the SAVE program. The cancellations were originally scheduled to start in July, but last month the administration said it would be ready almost six months ahead of schedule, in February.
"Starting today, the first round of folks who are enrolled in our SAVE student loan repayment plan who have paid their loans for 10 years and borrowed $12,000 or less will have their debt cancelled," Biden posted on social media Wednesday. "That's 150,000 Americans and counting. And we're pushing to relieve more."
The first round of forgiveness from the SAVE plan will clear $1.2 billion in loans. The borrowers will get emails with a message from Biden notifying them that "all or a portion of your federal student loans will be forgiven because you qualify for early loan forgiveness under my Administration's SAVE Plan."
In his email to borrowers, Biden wrote he had heard from "countless people who have told me that relieving the burden of their student loan debt will allow them to support themselves and their families, buy their first home, start a small business, and move forward with life plans they've put on hold."
More than 7.5 million people have enrolled in the new repayment plan.
He said Wednesday that it was the kind of relief "that can be life-changing for individuals and their families."
"I'm proud to have been able to give borrowers like so many of you the relief you earned," he said, asking the crowd gathered for his speech how many had debt forgiven. Many raised their hands.
Borrowers are eligible for cancellation if they are enrolled in the SAVE plan, originally borrowed $12,000 or less to attend college and have made at least 10 years of payments. Those who took out more than $12,000 will be eligible for cancellation but on a longer timeline. For each $1,000 borrowed beyond $12,000, it adds an additional year of payments on top of 10 years.
The maximum repayment period is capped at 20 years for those with only undergraduate loans and 25 years for those with any graduate school loans.
Biden announced the new repayment plan last year alongside a separate plan to cancel up to $20,000 in loans for millions of Americans. The Supreme Court struck down his plan for widespread forgiveness, but the repayment plan has so far escaped that level of legal scrutiny. Unlike his proposal for mass cancellation — which had never been done before — the repayment plan is a twist on existing income-based plans created by Congress more than a decade ago.
Biden said he remained steadfast in his commitment to "fix our broken student loan system," working around the court's ruling to find other ways to get it done.
This College Student’s Acceptance Letter Came With a Marching Band
Alejandro Marroquin, 17, was surprised one morning by a full marching band outside his home, carrying a letter admitting him to the University of Maryland. Read the story from Emily Davies of The Washington Post. (January 2024)