At least two colleges have said they won't necessarily refund students' housing costs if the pandemic causes residence halls to shut down this fall.
The University of South Florida and Western Carolina University have updated their living agreements to clarify that they won't return housing fees if dormitories close.
The move angered the public and higher ed professionals, some of whom said the institutions weren't being conscious of the current financial strain on students and their families.
South Florida announced earlier this month that in order to move onto campus, students must agree to an addendum to the college's housing contract, which states they wouldn't be eligible for refunds if residence halls closed.
Western Carolina followed suit shortly after, updating its residential agreement to note it would not be obligated to issue housing refunds or credits in the event a health or safety emergency forced it to shut down campus housing.
For South Florida, backlash was swift. President Steve Currall told the Tampa Bay Times the decision to not give refunds was a financial one.
"We have a number of fixed costs that we have to maintain to provide housing and dining and so on, so we're just trying to balance those out and be committed more than anything to transparency," Currall told the publication.
Students can opt out of campus housing by July 1. But in an online petition, parents called on the college to walk back the policy, writing it is "unacceptable to take advantage of students who cannot control current events."
Refunds for room and board, as well as tuition, were a point of contention for students as the coronavirus shuttered campuses this spring. Most institutions gave partial room and board credits to those who were living on campus, but they largely declined to do so for tuition and other expenses, prompting around 100 lawsuits. Students who asked for their tuition money back argued they weren't receiving the full educational experience they paid for.
Refusing housing refunds is a "terrible strategy," said Doug Webber, an economics professor at Temple University who specializes in higher education.
Either the universities' leaders don't understand the consequences of such a decision, or they truly can't afford the financial hit, Webber said. But regardless, they shouldn't reopen in the fall, he added.
"If you're not in the financial position to be able to protect students, you shouldn't open face-to-face," Webber said.
South Florida and Western Carolina, like many institutions across the country, are likely concerned about their enrollments tanking if they don't offer in-person classes, he said. Studies have shown students prefer courses that are mostly or entirely in-person over those that are fully online. And colleges will likely see a downturn in the number of lucrative out-of-state and international students who attend this year as a result, Webber said.
The two colleges are also public, he noted, meaning they are anticipating a sharp decline in state appropriations and are looking to save money however they can.
"Schools are getting hit from all angles," Webber said.