Natalie Marshall says the University of Central Oklahoma owes her a refund for services not provided last semester after the campus closed in the wake of COVID-19.
Marshall, a senior majoring in forensic science and criminal justice, started an online petition following the shutdown urging the administration to give students a partial refund of fees they paid for things like health clinic and counseling services, library and lab use, and face-to-face tutoring.
“It’s not fair we paid $500 for a university fee when beginning in March we couldn’t go to the fitness center,” she said.
To make matters worse, many students lost jobs and internships because of the pandemic. “Students are feeling very stressed about paying the remainder of their tuition and fees because many of the students are now unemployed,” Marshall said.
Calls for a partial refund of spring semester payments are echoing across America.
Expert Institute recently reported that more than 4,000 universities and colleges in the United States closed their campuses and switched to online learning formats in response to the coronavirus, affecting at least 25 million students.
More than 100 class-action lawsuits have been filed against universities and colleges for the repayment of fees. Many also seek tuition reimbursement, claiming online classes don’t have equal value to in-person classes. While many have offered refunds for services like room and board that were disrupted, institutions across the country have drawn the line at reimbursing tuition payments.
UCO offered students prorated refunds of fees paid for housing, meal plans and parking permits.
A class action lawsuit filed against the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education requests a partial refund of fees paid by students at all 25 public colleges and universities during the spring semester. The petition filed in May in Oklahoma County does not seek a tuition refund.
“The tuition goes toward the education and these students got the education. The schools did a good job,” said Grant Thetford, an attorney with the Tulsa law firm representing the plaintiff. “Fees go to very specific things.”
Plaintiff Christopher Knox, whose son is a University of Oklahoma student, paid $4,296 for mandatory and course-related fees and $2,885 for room and board for the spring semester, according to the petition.
While limited credits for room and board have been offered to some students at some institutions, refunds for other fees have been refused, the petition states.
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“These students need this money back. They have had summer internships and jobs cancelled. They are feeling hardship from every single side,” Thetford said.
More than 50 students from OU, Oklahoma State University, Cameron University and Oklahoma City Community College are among those who have contacted the law firm about the lawsuit, he said.
In an answer to the class action petition filed July 1, the State Regents maintain they are the wrong party to be sued because there is no contract between them and students or their families and they never received any fees from the students or families.
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Regents declined to answer questions about the role tuition and fees play in keeping doors open to the colleges and universities they regulate.
But polling data released in January show financial sustainability and the prices students pay are the top two concerns of public college and university trustees, followed by a decrease in state funding for higher education.
UCO’s 2020-21 budget shows tuition and fees make up two-thirds of its revenue with 25% coming from state appropriations.
“We can’t survive one semester without students,” UCO President Patti Neuhold-Ravikumar said.
It is the university’s job to provide students the education they pay for regardless of the mode of delivery, Neuhold-Ravikumar said.
“COVID should not stop us from our mission,” she said. “We must work with the community to create virtual internships and other learning opportunities affected by the pandemic. It’s a challenge for students in areas like nursing and performing arts whose learning requires being in environments with other people.”
State Rep. Kyle Hilbert, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, said higher education is in “a uniquely tough spot” due to revenue losses from multiple sources.
Not only was the state appropriation for 2020-21 cut 4%, but enrollment projections are down and the pandemic likely will mean less revenue from donors and athletic programs, Hilbert, R-Depew, said.
“I get that it’s a burden on the universities, but it’s not fair to pay for facilities students can’t use,” he said.
North Carolina’s legislature passed a bill that provides immunity for colleges and universities from legal claims related to COVID-19 closures for the 2020 spring semester. That includes legal complaints demanding tuition and fees refunds for institutions switching to remote classes and shutting down dorms, dining halls and other campus facilities. Gov. Roy Cooper signed the new law July 1.
John Estus, a senior adviser to state House of Representatives Speaker Charles McCall, said he is not aware of anyone working on similar legislation in Oklahoma, but bill filing is four months away.
Marshall hopes her petition, which had 5,296 signatures Aug. 7, will bring students some financial relief without taking legal action.
“UCO should have done a better job of helping students find a way to recover from what happened,” Marshall said. “I’m sure they all know we’re struggling.”