COVID-19’s Impact on Classes Prompts NJ College Students to Seek Tuition Refunds

A few college and universities in the state are offering pro-rated refunds for room, board and parking, but claim remote classes obviate need for tuition givebacks
Credit: Tomwsulcer via Creative Commons CC0-1.0
Rutgers University College Walk

Several New Jersey universities and colleges are offering residential students who’ve moved off campus because of COVID-19 pro-rated refunds for unused room, board and parking.  Now, students from at least three schools have started online petitions requesting tuition refunds and other financial givebacks. The response might not be what students or their parents want to hear.

Created on the change.org platform, petitions from students at Ramapo College of New Jersey, Rutgers University and Montclair State University share the same basic language and three core requests: reimbursement for charges for services or amenities that can’t be used off campus, such as gyms, computer labs and libraries; reimbursement for up to 30% of tuition; and for financial aid to be credited to a future semester. According to the petitions, by not reimbursing tuition and fees, the colleges demonstrate “a massive disregard for the mental, physical, and financial wellbeing of (their) most valuable asset — the students.”

Students make their case

Jennifer Rodriguez, a social work major at Ramapo, said she started the petition after learning about the ones at other schools. She has no issues with her remote classes, but empathizes with those who do. “Some students can’t afford their own laptops and relied on the college’s computer lab for internet access, and the transition has been difficult,” she said.

She sent the petition to nearly three dozen politicians, including Sens. Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, New Jersey congressional representatives; several state senators; Gov. Phil Murphy and President Donald Trump. While her petition’s primary goal is tuition reimbursement, at the very least, she said, “It builds awareness of what many students are experiencing.”

The Montclair petition’s poster, identified only as C.L., criticizes remote learning. “For starters, you are no longer getting one on one opportunities to speak with your professor or have open discussion in person to promote further learning of material. Second, we are now paying to teach ourselves the material, something that typically costs less when you enroll in an online program to begin with in some cases.”

There are more than 500 signatures on each of the Ramapo and Montclair petitions, as well as more than 1,000 on the Rutgers petition. One Ramapo student’s parent wrote, “There are students — my daughter being one of them — who pay their way through college … Obviously safety first — but if your not receiving a service — how can you be expected to pay for it?” A Montclair student praised the college for “putting the student’s well-being first, but added, “I believe the right thing to do is give back partial amounts of what is left of our tuition.”  One Rutgers student simply said, “Not the education I signed up for.”

Colleges have their say

Dory Devlin, a Rutgers University spokesperson, said the university has broadly committed to refunds for students’ housing, dining and parking charges, along with specific course-related fees on a course-by-course basis. Tuition and other fees will not be refunded.

“Our current focus is on trying to provide the best remote-learning experience for our students at a time of enormous fiscal constraints, including a commitment to more than $50 million in student refunds, an immediate $73 million freeze on state appropriations announced late last week, multimillion-dollar reductions in clinical revenue and other COVID-19-related costs and losses of income,” said Devlin.

Ramapo College officials said the school is not currently planning to pro-rate any refund on tuition payments, since all classes are meeting remotely and most support services are available to students. “In addition to delivering courses remotely, our faculty have been extraordinary in providing our students with emotional support, needed guidance and positive inspiration in these most challenging times,” said Peter Mercer, president of Ramapo College. Staff members are also providing “tremendous support” to Ramapo students from library services to counseling appointments, technology assistance, tutoring sessions and academic advising, he said.

Montclair’s response is similar. “We are aware of the reimbursement petition, but we are not providing partial refunds for tuition and fees. The University is continuing to provide instruction and support services in new and innovative ways during this unprecedented public health emergency. Our mission is to assure that students don’t lose this semester, and that those who are scheduled to graduate at the end of this term can do so,” the university said in a statement.

Petitions or not, other colleges providing remote instruction are indicating tuition reimbursement is not on the table. “Since instruction is continuing online for the remainder of the spring semester, Centenary University will not be issuing tuition reimbursements for the spring semester. We are in the process of determining how to handle reimbursements for room and board; that decision will be made before the end of the spring semester,” said Corinne Pilote, a Centenary University spokesperson.

People sign, but does it matter?

They’re easy to create and usually free, but do online petitions carry any weight? There are nationally known examples when they have: Change.org is credited with influencing teen magazines to stop using Photoshopped models and the beef industry to curtail adding “pink slime” filler to products, for example. Some experts, however, say a petition’s effectiveness depends on a variety of factors, such as timing and next planned actions.

There’s at least one COVID 19-related example of a petition’s influence in New Jersey higher education. When Fairleigh Dickinson University announced its May 18 commencement at MetLife Stadium would be canceled, “one of the most painful decisions we have had to make thus far,” its community responded through emails, phone calls and an online petition with more than 5,500 signatures. On March 25, FDU president Christopher Capuano provided an update: The university will have a brief virtual ceremony on May 18, in which he will confer degrees upon students, and additionally, is developing plans for an in-person ceremony in the future.

“I have listened to your comments and suggestions and we will indeed plan for a full in-person ceremony at a later date, as circumstances permit,” he said. While details remain to be worked out, the president noted, “Please know there is nothing I look forward to more than actually seeing in person all of our graduates walking across the stage.”