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Public university promises no refunds if it closes student housing again in the name of COVID protection

‘This is just an easy way to keep fees for services that were not rendered’

Thinking of living on campus at Western Carolina University?

Think twice.

In a refreshing bout of honesty unusual for an institution of higher education, the taxpayer-funded university warned students they were spit out of luck if WCU chose to close campus housing again in the coming academic year due to a novel coronavirus outbreak – or any other “emergency.”

Last week it shared updates on community standards, campus housing, events and dining. The revised Residential Living Agreement (so rushed it apparently wasn’t proofread) uses passive language to suggest WCU has no choice but to shutter campus housing whenever it deems an “emergency.” Under “Pandemic Influenza or Other Emergency,” the contract reads:

WCU and resident acknowledge the ongoing possibility that, due to a health or safety emergency, including the COVID-19 outbreak, resident may not be able to occupy campus housing, or resident’s use of campus housing facilities may be significantly restricted.

In the event that the administration chooses to impose “temporary closures, restrictions, and/or adjustments to the housing services schedule, WCU shall not have the obligation to issue a partial refund or credit for such interruptions or adjustments.”

If the university kicks you out on short notice, you’ll be responsible “for removing all valuable personal items at that time.” It also won’t compensate you for unilaterally moving your stuff or furnishings out of your room and then losing or damaging them, in the event it kicks you out suddenly due to the “emergency” it declared.

Other updates are portrayed as voluntary but strongly recommended. One that is not: Students not wearing a “facial covering … at all times in classrooms and other public work or instructional environments” can be refused entry or turned away.

The updated events and activities guidance says meeting room spaces will be severely limited in total capacity:

For example, normally the University Center Grand Room seats several hundred people using lecture or theater style seating, but with physical distancing the Grand Room will seat approximately 60 individuals this fall [suggesting capacity of a third at most].

Don’t expect to be able to play intramural and club sports, or even use the Campus Recreation Center. The administration says it’s waiting on “relevant official guidance” from federal and state authorities before allowing any related activities.

On-campus dining will be “a very different experience,” university guidance warns. All meals will be served to go, and WCU variously promises “limited,” “very limited” and “as much seating … as possible within dining facilities.” Students can eat outside, and “[a]s always, your residence hall room is also a dining location.” The document makes no mention of possible refunds.

MORE: Universities hit with class actions for tuition refunds amid COVID

Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Sam Miller told WLOS: “It’s our intent not to have to be in a position to send anyone home or to pay any refunds for any of our tuition and fees.”

Comments on the Facebook announcement were largely not positive. Some samples:

Hard to chalk up $6400 +- with the potential of loosing [sic] it all. […] We all work hard for our money to be giving it away for something out of our control.

This is unacceptable! If we are paying for housing and are required to have a meal plan, then if the school decides to close we should be refunded a pro-rated amount for each month that went unused. This is just an easy way to keep fees for services that were not rendered.

This is so wrong on so many levels. Its all about keeping our money or the kids money after getting millions and millions from the state to help the kids out, this is a prime example of bad management !!

Sadly my student doesn’t want to return if it’s going to be like this. She feels it would be a waste of money. … Paying more for less and less of your college experience just doesn’t make sense. Fyi other universities are finding ways to compensate students for lost services!

WCU is far from the only university implicitly warning students not to live on campus.

The University of South Florida is forcing students in campus housing to sign an addendum to their housing contract acknowledging that they won’t get refunds if the taxpayer-funded institution chooses to kick them out, the Tampa Bay Times reports. The message went out last week, “a day after USF’s Board of Trustees approved a plan to reopen for the fall semester.”

Read the WCU updates, WLOS report and Times report.

h/t Anthony Hennen

MORE: Public university hires chief diversity officer after COVID refunds, fee hikes

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.