No Housing Refunds Put UNC System Students in Tough Spot

Two UNC system schools, Western Carolina University and UNC-Greensboro, have announced that they will not offer students housing refunds if the university closes due to another COVID-19 outbreak.

Both schools added an addendum to their housing contracts relieving them of liability should campus shut down again. The addendum states that “in the event of such closures, restrictions, and/or adjustments to the housing services schedule, the University shall not have the obligation to issue a partial refund or credit for such interruptions or adjustments.”

In response to student concerns, UNC-Greensboro updated its COVID-19 FAQ website to clarify that the policy came from the UNC system rather than Greensboro’s administration. 

It’s unclear, though, whether the policy is an optional recommendation from the UNC system or a requirement.

Bill Roper, the UNC system interim president, told state university chancellors in a May 29 memo that the university “should include language in student housing contracts that the university retains the discretion to close or restrict use of campus housing and to alter the schedule of housing services to preserve health and safety.”

Several universities have yet to adopt the new housing addendum. North Carolina State University announced a COVID-19 housing update on June 1 which states that “NC State’s total liability in such cases shall be limited to issuing pro rata refunds or credits for such periods that residents are prohibited from residing in university housing unless otherwise directed by the UNC System.”

UNC-Chapel Hill released a statement June 24 which said that they plan to prorate housing costs if dorms close and said more information would be forthcoming

Students have strongly condemned Western Carolina and UNC-Greensboro’s plans. Laura Comino, a UNC-Greensboro student, posted the contract to Twitter to warn other UNC system students. She started a petition on which lists the following demands:

  1. A comprehensive plan, regardless of the situation on housing refunds or lack thereof, to take care both financially and physically of students who risk homelessness and unsafe living conditions in case of school closure next year.
  2. An apology and explanation about the misinformation that has transpired these past couple of days, with the at-fault party taking accountability. We also wish for every university in the system to make a clear statement on the matter.
  3. Eventually, a system-wide guarantee of refunds in case of school closure next semester, to financially protect all students and put our wellbeing first.

The petition currently has over 39,000 signatures.

The policy comes as a surprise to many students who received partial refunds on housing after campuses closed partway through the spring 2020 semester. In April, the UNC system refunded nearly $77 million to students. With the anticipation of a second wave of COVID-19, students expected the same policy.

Though frustrated, students might not be able to challenge the no-refund policy.

While many colleges in the UNC system were hit with lawsuits after spring semester closures, the North Carolina General Assembly recently passed a law that would provide limited immunity to universities against legal claims over COVID-19 closures.

The bill states that colleges would avoid liability provided that their actions were taken “for the purpose of reducing the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to individuals present on the premises.” While the bill does not explicitly protect colleges from legal claims for the fall 2020 semester, it paves the way for further legal protections for schools regarding COVID-19 changes.

For students who rely on university housing, particularly those with loans or impoverished students, no refunds could mean a loss of more than $1,400. While Western Carolina and UNC-Greensboro will let students opt out of their housing contracts before August, their no-refund policy means students need to find off-campus housing fast or risk paying for housing they can’t use.

That policy adds to the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming semester. Although most campuses plan to reopen in the fall, they are taking drastic precautions to avoid a second wave of COVID-19 infections. Many schools will keep using remote instruction, a decision that students don’t like. Several schools have yet to announce what method of instruction they will use in the fall, which could mean a potentially significant drop in enrollment.

While universities are concerned about enrollments tanking, refusing financial liability for COVID-19 closures will not help the situation.

Under a no-refund policy, the risk associated with housing costs falls on students. Students now must decide if online courses are worth the price of in-person classes and if they should gamble on housing costs too.

Those considerations are especially critical for out-of-state and international students. Eighteen percent of students enrolled in a UNC school come from out-of-state. At UNC-Chapel Hill, 5.4 percent of the student body are international students. For them, attending in-person or remote classes may only be possible if they have local housing.

After the abrupt shift to remote learning, reopening campus is a welcome relief for many students. However, the no-refund housing policy, compounded with the indecision over instruction methods, leaves many students in a state of turmoil as they scramble to make last-minute plans. Universities should be doing everything in their power to encourage students to enroll in fall classes. So far, they seem more focused on ensuring payments over pupils.

Nicole Divers is a Martin Center intern and a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.