Credit Where Credit Is Due: Should Students Be Satisfied With YU’s Refund Policy?
In a call with the university’s students last week, President Berman announced that despite the “serious financial consequences” that the university has endured from the current situation, YU will be refunding 30% of its students’ housing costs for the semester and 100% of their remaining dining plan card balance. At the same time, other fees, including unused printing funds, commencement fees and student activities fees, will seemingly not be returned to students. Furthermore, additional communication from YU has failed to provide a detailed accounting of YU’s financial difficulties and how they have impacted its refund policy, which makes evaluating the policy's fairness to students nearly impossible.
The current policy returns many of the funds that students are owed, and YU deserves to be praised for formulating and communicating the policy clearly to the student body. Furthermore, by refunding all of our leftover dining plan funds, it has taken an important step toward helping those students struggling with financial burdens during this difficult time. Refunding 30% of our housing costs surely adds to YU’s financial burden, and it is therefore admirable that YU has put forth a policy that rightly returns a portion of this fee to the students as well.
But the refund policy’s narrow scope fails to account for student activities fees that will no longer benefit current students and unused printing money that students are no longer able to access, as well as other unrendered services that students have already paid for. Dismissing these costs without offering a justification to the student body does a disservice to the students, many of whom are struggling financially during this time.
It is reasonable for YU to argue that it is suffering financially from the current tragic situation. After all, food already purchased for the cafeteria would likely have had to be discarded when school was canceled, the swift and largely successful shift to virtual classes and support services surely comes with its own costs and YU would likely have had to continue paying maintenance fees to keep housing operational while student belongings remain in their rooms. But at the same time, the university owes its students a more complete accounting of why its financial burdens have compelled it to withhold refunding fees to students for other services that have gone unrendered.
One obstacle in particular that has made evaluating the refund policy so challenging is the university’s frustrating predilection to remain vague when it comes to its finances. For example, explaining its decision not to refund commencement fees, YU’s Undergrad Refunds FAQ makes the sweeping assertion that the “graduation fee covers many aspects of graduation, not merely the Commencement event itself.” These aspects of graduation, which include “students’ final evaluation of their degree eligibility and other ancillary costs,” are continuing even with no in-person commencement ceremony, and therefore, graduation fees will not be refunded.
Logically, this justification does not hold up: admitting that the commencement fee covers additional costs beyond the commencement itself indicates that at the very least, the portion of the fee that does cover the commencement itself should be refunded. But more troubling than that, YU has seemingly not felt any need to elaborate on what “ancillary costs” it is referring to, how much money an “evaluation of degree eligibility” costs, and how it arrived at the conclusion that it was justified in offering no refund for commencement whatsoever.
This frustrating lack of financial transparency carries over to other costs that YU has seemingly swept under the rug. In an email to the undergraduate student body explaining the refund policy, the university broadly dismissed reimbursing any additional fees beyond the housing and dining refunds, referring to the “full range of support services, including academic support, counseling center, tele-health appointments, academic advising, writing center appointments, career center, student events, etc.” that YU is continuing to provide.
Although as students we should all be immensely grateful for the full range of services that YU is continuing to provide virtually, it is troubling that YU fails to specifically justify its decision to withhold student activities fees and other payments that students will no longer benefit from — including leftover printing money that will remain unused as well as costs associated with various student events that will either no longer happen or move online, including the Yom Haatzmaut BBQ, canceled Purim events and other club events that, moving online, no longer have the same significant costs associated with them. The student councils, which no longer need to pay the costs of food and other supplies for on-campus events, have a surplus of money on their hands, and any decision not to return these funds to the students who paid them needs to be justified to those students.
Other universities have been dealing with similar struggles with mixed results. Some, like Columbia and Pace University, are facing repercussions for their financial decisions in the form of student suits for refunds. Experts are anticipating legal action from students across the country who are dissatisfied with the refund policies that their universities are enacting. It may not be possible to fully resolve these complex and difficult questions in a way that will satisfy the needs of both the student body and the university, but the university should still approach these matters with utmost transparency and a willingness to engage with its students.
Under ordinary circumstances, it would be unfair for anyone to expect a university to release an accounting of its financial situation or decision-making process; surely the financial officers of a university have the right to make the decisions they feel are best for the university without justifying themselves every step of the way to the public. But these are not ordinary circumstances: the university has been forced to close its campuses, and students no less than the institution itself are suffering financially as a result.
It is not sufficient for YU to refer to “ancillary fees” and continuing virtual support services as justification for its limited policy. Instead, the university ought to account for its decision to push the burden of covering their costs on its students as opposed to absorbing these burdens through different means. A student-first approach to finances is not only the right thing to do, but would ultimately lead to greater benefit to YU down the line, with the potential for a larger pool of applicants to choose to attend YU knowing that it prioritizes its students, and more alumni thinking fondly of the university, which would surely lead to even more positive economic outcomes such as future donations.