Opinion: Following COVID-19 disruptions, students should receive tuition reimbursements
A previous version of this article included inaccurate information regarding student health insurance plans and the services available at Bishop Wellness Center. For the most up-to-date information about changes to Bishop’s services, you can visit their website at https://willamette.edu/offices/wellness/index.html.
For the spring 2020 semester, tuition for the Willamette’s College of Liberal Arts (CLA) was $33,220, with fees priced at $370. Willamette Admission reports that the average CLA financial aid package is worth $18,829. Factoring in this average financial aid package, which includes federal loans that must eventually be paid back, the total fixed costs for the spring semester add up to about $14,761. This cost does not include what students pay for books, supplies or individual class fees.
On March 12, all Willamette classes were moved online, and on March 16, distance learning was extended indefinitely. On March 30, Bishop Wellness Center moved all health services to an online or over the phone format, which they are referring to as “telehealth.” In addition to classes being moved online and Bishop closing its doors, all athletics events were cancelled and the majority of buildings on campus were closed. Students were told four days before spring break that they were not allowed to return to their residence halls if they left, on-campus employees were limited to security, facilities and select administrators, and Goudy significantly limited its dining options and suspended “All You Can Eat” meals, a staple of on-campus dining plans. The buildings that remain open are the University Center, Goudy Commons, Ford Hall and residence halls (the latter are only open to students still allowed to live in them). As all of these resources closed down to the Willamette community, students have been expected to pay the same amount of tuition and fees. Students are no longer getting what they paid for and the University should seek to reimburse students for their disrupted education.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 has required equally rapid responses from institutions of higher education across the nation, leaving many students and university staff confused and scrambling to keep up with which resources are still available and where they are allowed to go without losing further access to their places of employment and education. While these measures have been taken in the interest of public health, the financial and educational security of Willamette’s student body has been negatively affected by the sudden suspension of resources that are largely funded by students’ tuitions. There is additional concern among graduating students of the Class of 2020, a cohort facing a post-graduation global recession as it waits to hear further updates on a cancelled commencement ceremony.
The University has taken some steps to acknowledge these shortcomings. On April 3, Vice President of Finance Dan Valles emailed students who were paying for room and board, stating that “students who departed campus by the end of spring break will receive a full refund for board plans and a 50% rebate on room plans.” While this is a significant relief for students who have resided on campus, the University has yet to address concerns around tuition, despite the ongoing restriction of student access to a majority of campus resources.
A member of the group “WU Students Demanding Tuition Reimbursements,” Megan Pratt ‘20, explained, “I came to Willamette partially because we are one of the only undergraduate programs in the nation with a cadaver lab. Exercise and health science students, as well as STEM students of other disciplines, have paid to use expensive lab equipment and research materials we no longer have access to. I am also under the impression that studio art majors and music students have lost access to their recording studios and art materials, which the administration should address.”
Another student, who asked to remain anonymous in the interest of preserving their relationship with the University and its administrators, expressed support for tuition reimbursement because, “while still paying the portion of tuition that covers ‘free’ printing, I've had to purchase a printer, paper and ink in order to take my finals… Two printers in Ford are nowhere near adequate to provide printing to the better portion of 1,800 students, many of whom previously depended on this service that we pay for with our tuition dollars.”
While some student leadership have reported ongoing administrative conversations on these subjects, most students have been left in the dark as administrators fail to seek student input or experience regarding the burden of tuition payments. Some students and their families have been experiencing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic, and there are options for these students to appeal for more financial aid, but ultimately they shouldn’t have to scramble to continue paying for the quality of education they are no longer receiving. As a result, some students have begun calling for the administration to establish a task force examining tuition and graduation reimbursements, and are demanding this task force offer a place at the table for students who are willing to work with administration in shaping the University’s response. I have personally taken action to reflect this desire by creating a change.org petition titled “WU Students Demand Tuition Reimbursements.” The petition was created in collaboration with members of the WU Students Demanding Tuition Reimbursements group and, after being published on April 6, was posted to the Willamette University Students page on Facebook. The petition calls upon President Thorsett, the Board of Trustees and Dan Valles to respond quickly by forming a reimbursement taskforce.
Within 12 hours of its posting, the petition received over 100 signatures and support continues to grow.
When and how administration will respond has yet to be seen, but it should be clear that students are not getting what they pay for, and they are paying a lot in a time when financial security is unattainable across the nation. It is unclear how long COVID-related disruptions will last or what the future holds for next semester, but for the time being it is an economic injustice for the University to take tuition payments in full for the spring 2020 semester.