By the time students began arriving on campuses this month, tuition bills and housing contracts were paid. As they moved into dorms, they bought books, school supplies, and swag at the campus bookstore. They bought meal plans in anticipation of a semester of cafeteria dining.

All that money was spent for what students, parents, and campus administrators had hoped would be a somewhat normal semester of college in the midst of a pandemic. Some of those plans have been dashed, as outbreaks of the coronavirus led to the canceling of in-person courses at several institutions.

Notably, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, and East Carolina University all moved to remote instruction after just a week of classes. Michigan State University canceled most in-person instruction less than two weeks before the semester began. Many institutions may make similar decisions as the realities of viral infection collide with their in-person ambitions.

While a lot of people in higher education were pushing for campuses to remain closed, they were also saying that faculty and staff shouldn’t lose their jobs.

But as students cancel their plans to study on campus, nearly all of the money they spent for tuition will stay with the university. The change in instructional plans in some cases came too late for students to get full refunds of their tuition if they withdrew. And it made it nearly impossible for them to attend a different college. Some observers have eyed campus leaders’ decision-making with suspicion: Were these late decisions all about securing nonrefundable tuition?

The decision to close the Chapel Hill campus was announced just hours before the deadline to get a 95-percent refund of tuition was set to expire, though the university later extended that period by a week. Madelyn Darbonne, a rising junior at Michigan State, wrote in a column that she was skeptical of her university’s motivations. “It’s curious that MSU waited until five days after the minimum tuition-and-fee payment was due to make the announcement that classes will be remote,” Darbonne wrote for The Detroit News.

Higher-education experts and other students said they did not think money was the only consideration in planning for a fall of in-person instruction. Maintaining enrollment and reputation were factors, as were political pressures and the ambitions of administrators, in the ill-fated plans for the fall semester.

“I don’t think it was all about the money,” said Andrew Koricich, assistant professor of higher education at Appalachian State University, which remains open with a mix of online and in-person courses. “But I think that was a big part of it.”

Not Prepared

Brendan Cantwell, associate professor of educational administration at Michigan State, said college leaders were, in some cases, just too optimistic about their own abilities in managing the crisis. “I’m a pretty cynical guy, but i think administrators willfully convinced themselves they could pull it off,” he said.

High hopes, however, couldn’t compete with the coronavirus. By the time the North Carolina flagship shut down, for example, hundreds of students had tested positive across the campus. After an open call for remote learning from the dean of the university’s school of public health, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced that the rest of the semester would be online.

Felecia Commodore, assistant professor of educational foundations and leadership at Old Dominion University, in Virginia, said colleges were reacting to a range of conflicting pressures about the health of students and faculty, as well as the economic consequences.

“We should be careful not to frame this decision-making as entirely about making money for the institution,” Commodore said. “While a lot of people in higher education were pushing for campuses to remain closed,” she said, “they were also saying that faculty and staff shouldn’t lose their jobs. We can’t have both.”

It’s also important to consider that this is a new and historic set of circumstances that higher education is facing, she said. Administrators could have been better prepared if they had included a wider range of voices in the planning process, especially student-affairs professionals, Commodore said.

Students who spent all summer anticipating a semester on campus have expressed a mix of emotions but were clearly frustrated at the late decision to change course.

Melanie Flowers, president of the student government at North Carolina State, said she was relieved when her university changed its plans because of the potential for widespread outbreaks of the virus on campus. “I had reservations all summer about how we would be able to achieve perfect compliance from everyone,” she said.

Flowers blames the university’s decision to try in-person instruction on the university system’s Board of Governors, which she believes was worried about revenues but was also politically motivated.

Abii-Tah Chungong Bih, a senior at Michigan State and president of its undergraduate student government, told The Chronicle that the administration was not completely prepared for all the disruption that the move to remote instruction would cause. The university’s decision to cancel the in-person courses will also cost it revenue, she said, because of room-and-board refunds.

Most students at these universities could get some of their nontuition money back: Many of those who had planned to stay on campus are eligible for refunds of their room and board. Chapel Hill and the others in the North Carolina system are also giving students an extra week to withdraw from their courses, although even with the extension, they will not get a full refund.

The refund policies indicate that the universities are not necessarily trying to squeeze every last nickel out of students, Cantwell said. But they do point to the desire for institutions to maintain their enrollment.

“What determines the winners and losers in higher education is less about how much you charge every student,” he said, “but how many students you can enroll.”

But it’s not clear that many large public research universities would have lost significant enrollment if they had planned to be all online early in the process, said Koricich, of Appalachian State.

“Where were they going to go?” Koricich asked “Most of them were still going to come even if you announce in May that you will be entirely online,” he said.

.(tagsToTranslate)Board of Governors(t)Kevin M. Guskiewicz(t)Michigan State University(t)North Carolina State University(t)Old Dominion University(t)Appalachian State University(t)North Carolina(t)University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill(t)Administration(t)Student Life

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