College loses $5 million in room and board refunds

By Melissa Schill

4.29.20

Student Financial Services (SFS) has refunded students that have moved off campus for all B-quad room and board fees as well as parking pass fees. These refunds amounted to over $5 million.

“Yes, it’s a big cash flow hit for the College to lose those dollars, but it was done because it’s the right thing to do,” SFS Director Karen Belling said. SFS began processing the refunds on Friday, April 3. The funds were deposited into student accounts toward existing outstanding tuition balances for the semester. Students without outstanding balances could submit a request to have the refund withdrawn from their student account, or choose to keep the money in the account toward expenses in the next academic year.

Vice President of Finance and Operations Chad Rynbrandt said that the decisions made by the COVID-19 response team were “led primarily by what was the right thing to do for the safety of our students, for the safety of our faculty, staff and for the safety of our community.” 

He also said that the team aimed to make decisions that demonstrated a response of Christian care. “That really drove the decision, and then afterward we said, ‘Ok, how much is this going to cost?’ We take our financial stewardship very, very seriously, but that did not drive this decision,” Rynbrandt said. 

Some US colleges have not offered the same refunds for their students due to financial constraints. The University of Minnesota is offering prorated refunds rather than the full refund that Wheaton is offering. Larger universities that did choose to offer refunds face large financial consequences: the University of Massachusetts lost $100 million in offering full refunds to their students for room and board.

Because classes could still continue online, the response team decided to not offer any tuition adjustments, a decision in line with colleges nationwide.

Though the College has chosen not to offer tuition refunds, the SFS announced a Hardship Relief Program on April 16 for students who have outstanding balances and extenuating financial needs due to COVID-19. The application deadline is May 1. “We know these are unusual times, and finances can be part of the anxiety and stress,” Belling said, “So we really want to be available and approachable.” 

While all classes have been transferred online, some classes such as labs, studio-based music and art classes have had to make more significant adjustments due to the lack of at-home resources for the students. 

Sophomore Erika Filer, a Teaching Assistant for Biology 242, said that students in the class are no longer able to complete any of the planned dissections. Instead, they’re watching YouTube videos of dissections and filling out worksheets with their observations.

Lab classes also usually have a lab fee that covers some of the materials they work with throughout the course. Lab fees typically range from $50-$100. Filer said that since students no longer have access to the labs and to the materials they purchased, she thought they should have been refunded half the lab fee. 

Junior biology major Meredith Showler said that even though lab instruction has continued virtually, upper-level STEM majors are missing out on the opportunity to conduct first-hand research. “Our professors are doing a fantastic job making the most of a bad situation, but we’re losing weeks’ worth of the most important content we became STEM majors to learn: the actual hands-on skills and research experience that jobs and graduate schools are looking for. It’s not the school’s fault, but we’re not getting our money’s worth.”

“Although it’s not the same as being in person, in the classroom, I’ve still been able to get good quality out of my classes,” sophomore biology major Erika Filer said. “Maybe in a perfect world we’d be able to get some tuition refund, but the amount of work that the faculty is putting in, combined with the fact that we’re in a global crisis, and how we’re still getting an education is enough to say that we probably don’t need a tuition refund.”

The administration has not yet made a decision about how classes will proceed for the fall semester.

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, the Record published an inaccurate description of how refunds were credited to student accounts. The current version reflects updated information and we apologize for any confusion this inaccuracy may have caused.

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