Students push for partial tuition refund amid COVID-19 crisis

ETHAN TAN/FOGHORN

Ethan Tan

Staff Writer

Having completed their fourth week of remote learning, many students are wondering if USF will be cutting partial tuition refund checks to reflect the unprecedented decision to move classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Student Housing and Residential Education (SHaRE) agreed to refund housing fees at a prorated rate and refund all unused Flexi meal plan dollars, as students no longer live on campus and cannot use on-campus services. However, when it comes to fees and tuition, the University has not budged. In an email on March 16, USF’s COVID-19 Management Team stated, “Because the academic calendar is proceeding — albeit in a new way — and students will receive academic credits for completed courses, the university will not be issuing refunds for tuition charges.”

The University is not alone in declining to issue tuition refunds. Across the state and country, institutions big and small have contended that because the semester is still continuing, students are still getting the education they paid for. The refusal to issue refunds extends to student government fees, known at USF as the student activity fee. USF, along with other institutions like the University of San Diego, have stated that revenue generated by the fees has largely already been used for student programming, and any excess has been donated to help students in need. ASUSF Senate donated $10,000 in late March to USF’s Student Emergency Fund.

At the time of publication, the Foghorn is aware of two student-created petitions advocating for a partial tuition refund from USF. The first petition, created in mid-March, cites the cancelation of in-person classes and the inability to seek out face-to-face help from professors during office hours as the main reasons for a refund. At the time of publication, it has just over 1,200 signatures.

The second petition, created on March 29, has amassed nearly 2,500 signatures at the time of publication and cites similar concerns. The petition’s two creators, sophomore communications major Jasmine Moore and sophomore media studies major Samantha Berlanga, decided to create the petition after Moore had sent several emails advocating for  a potential tuition refund to President Paul Fitzgerald, Interim Provost Tyrone Cannon, and the Board of Trustees. Dean of Students Shannon Gary responded to Moore’s first email, explaining that the University had decided not to issue refunds because students are still receiving academic credit. 

“In no way did [Gary] address any of the concerns,” said Moore. 

After a reply email to Gary went unacknowledged, the duo created a petition to catch administrators’ attention and unite students who share their opinion. 

Moore and Berlanga’s petition calls for a 33% partial tuition refund. They based this figure on the cost of an online summer class, which is discounted at 33% of the cost of a normal class. The petition implies that the summer discount only applies to online classes, with the reduced cost being a result of the University valuing online courses less than in-person courses. Because of this, Moore and Berlanga believe that the discount should apply to this period of online instruction as well.

Shirley McGuire, senior vice provost for academic affairs, corrected this claim in an interview, telling the Foghorn that the 33% summer discount has been offered for the past few years in order to attract more students to take advantage of summer options and applies to both in-person and online classes. McGuire stated that the discount is not representative of classes moving online and that students should expect the same quality of education regardless of if a class is taught online or in person.

In an interview, Moore said that the University did the right thing by giving refunds for room and board, but she claims that administration has been “dismissive” when responding to concerns about tuition refunds. “The coronavirus is not your fault, but it is on you to act accordingly. What they have been doing is not acting accordingly.”

Berlanga said, “If they pride themselves on being one of the most open and progressive universities in America, they need to take the step forward and lead the U.S. towards financial justice, which is what this is.”

Moore said that the University’s stance that a tuition refund is unnecessary because the academic calendar is still continuing, albeit online, does not acknowledge the demands outlined in her email and later echoed in her petition. “My concern is you’re not charging students $50,000 for the academic calendar — you’re charging them for the San Francisco advantage and the media labs for the equipment. Clinical opportunities, also, for nursing students.”

In addition to a lack of on-campus resources, Berlanga believes the quality of education she and others are receiving though Zoom is not on par with what they expected. The petition claims that classes are now lower in quality, citing some professors choosing to pre-record their lectures and others increasing workloads. Other courses are simply harder to translate to an online format. 

Berlanga explained, “This semester, I was supposed to learn how to use a soundboard [in an audio production class]. I can’t take audio production again, but I’m expected to know how to use it for a job.”

Sophomore sociology major Teshera York readily signed Berlanga and Moore’s petition. “I fully agreed that we at least deserve a discount because we are not receiving the same quality of education or resources. It was an easy choice to sign the petition because it’s something I care about and it affects a lot of our students.”

York believes that moving classes online has created barriers that would not have existed in normal circumstances. In a text interview, she said, “Online classes have been really hard. The space is small in my house, and I don’t really have a personal space to do them. It’s also hard with the time difference because I’m 3 hours behind [in Hawaii], and I have to be up a lot earlier than I want to. My grades have been very gradually slipping because I feel like I am not putting in as much effort into my assignments.”

In an interview with the Foghorn, Cannon defended the decision to not refund tuition, saying, “A lot of what happens in the classroom is not quantifiable in the same way beyond the awarding of credit for a course that’s been completed. But in addition to the classroom and the coursework, students are still receiving support from the library, Center for Academic and Student Achievement (CASA), and a number of other advising services.”

With on-campus equipment and software being inaccessible at this time, McGuire said that students who need special software or tools should speak with their professors, who can get in contact with their deans to provide support through different departments such as Information Technology Services (ITS) or the Division of Student Life.

“We didn’t want any student’s progress to be interfered with,” McGuire said. “We want all the students to be able to progress through the semester. […] I found that many of the faculty and many of the staff and especially the lab staff [are finding] creative ways to help students so that they don’t their progress doesn’t stop.”

Responding to concerns over the quality of Zoom classes, McGuire said that professors should still be holding office hours and that classes should be meeting on Zoom as scheduled. Both Cannon and McGuire indicated that these concerns will be raised in meetings with deans and faculty, with the goal of students having a satisfactory experience for the remainder of the semester.

McGuire said that administration is working on ways to reach out to students and collaborate with deans to address any remaining issues with classes. “In every place that we can fix it. We’ll fix it.”

According to Cannon, the administration has not yet formally discussed any matters relating to tuition in the case that remote learning is extended to the fall semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

ASUSF Senate discussed the petitions during its April 8 meeting, as well as Senate’s potential response. 

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Moore expressed that one of her main reasons for starting the petition was that the University administration was not open to communication.

ASUSF Vice President of Finance Tiana Valerio started off the discussion by stating that she believed that the petition was primarily created with the goal of Moore receiving a response from the administration due to a lack of communication. As a result, Valerio said in the meeting that, “We should not be taking a formal stance in regards to the actual petition itself, it could put us in a tough spot […] but we should encourage a town hall.”

Senators in the meeting agreed with Valerio that a formal backing from Senate would not be necessary, but that it could be beneficial to create a forum where students could speak to the administration about these issues directly.

In regards to a forum involving students and administrators, Freshman Class Representative D’vine Riley said, “I don’t think it’s going to be a productive conversation; the University won’t move on it. It will give students false hope.”

“I think that this is really just the beginning around the conversation we’re having around what [actions we can take],” Senate President Hector Bustos said.

While Senate did not formally agree to host a forum at the time of the meeting, Bustos said they would discuss the matter further during next week’s Senate meeting after senators have the opportunity to discuss the petition with their constituents.

In response to the comments made during the Senate meeting, Moore expressed that while a forum would not guarantee a 33% partial refund, it would at least advance their cause.

Both Moore and Berlaga were disappointed that Senate did not publicly support their petition. 

“It is, of course, disappointing that the Senate did not back us, but there are over 2,000 students that do,” Berlanga said.

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