News: CJ Exclusives

UPDATED: UNC COVID outbreaks underscore desire of parents, students for financial relief if schools close

(CJ photo by Kari Travis)
(CJ photo by Kari Travis)

UPDATE, Monday, 4:06 p.m. UNC Chapel Hill officials announced the university would move to full online instruction on Wednesday and “reduce residential intensity.”

Four COVID-19 outbreaks reported last week at UNC Chapel Hill won’t shut down the flagship university campus. Yet.

Officials are dealing with the “clusters” — defined as at least five positive coronavirus cases in one location — at three residence halls and a fraternity house. The university has begun contact tracing of people who may have been around the infected students or staff, along with reinforcing campus-wide social distancing and other hygiene rules.

The school’s Faculty Executive Council will hold a special meeting Monday. Professor Mimi Chapman, faculty chair, sent the UNC Board of Governors a letter Saturday, Aug. 14, urging the board to let Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz stop in-person instruction for five weeks.

The Orange County Health Department recommended the move to Guskiewicz and the Board of Governors in late July. The board has said it won’t let chancellors make those calls.

But even if the BOG decides to temporarily close one or more of the 16 institutions for on-campus instruction and shutters residence halls, the board has said students won’t get any financial relief.

Worries about safety at other universities has led to the filing of more than 100 class-action lawsuits across the U.S. The parents and students say they should get some their money back if they’ve paid for facilities and services they can’t use because of pandemic prevention measures.

The plaintiffs are backed by an alliance of consumer-protection and education-reform groups, saying college students and their families need financial safeguards.

Called Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group is promoting a Tuition Payers’ Bill of Rights and other tools. The group launched the campaign at a virtual news conference Wednesday, Aug. 12.

PCAPT’s members say moves to protect taxpayers and tuition payers were overdue. COVID-19 has intensified campus problems.

“The way universities are treating their students is unfair, and in any other industry it wouldn’t be acceptable,” Robert Herrell, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California, told Carolina Journal at the news conference.

The UNC System has a mixed record in protecting students and families, said Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. “The UNC system does a good job at keeping tuition low comparatively, but the fees are going to be the sticking point for many people,” Robinson said. The Martin Center is one of PCAPT’s members.

Laura Comino, a senior at UNC Greensboro, said rising fees are a problem, especially when students are paying for service they’re not getting. “A lot of students are incredibly upset,” she said at the news conference. “Students taking all online classes are still being asked to pay the same fees as students attending on campus.”

The alliance has three tools to help tuition payers understand and exercise their rights — a consumer bill of rights, a petition directed at university administrators and policymakers, and a checklist of items to evaluate tuition policies. 

PCAPT says these tools are intended to equip students with information and support to ensure fair treatment; to change policies at the campus or system level; and, eventually, to ensure permanent consumer rights protections throughout U.S. higher education.

The consumer bill of rights outlined six protections for tuition payers:

  1. They will receive advertised benefits from their universities or get refunds for breach of delivery
  2. They have the right not to pay fees for non-essential services
  3. They have the right to obtain online texts and materials at no cost
  4. They have the right to financial transparency in pricing, billing, and spending
  5. They have the right to know the value of a degree before enrolling
  6. They have the right to address college governing boards before the boards make decisions about tuition and fees

The petition lets students publicly express their concerns to decision makers on campuses.

The checklist outlines questions students should ask their institutions to ensure fair tuition policy, particularly if the pandemic further disrupts campus life.

We want students to educate themselves about their institutions’ plans and policies now, as they head back to school for the fall, to prepare themselves in case of more disruption by COVID-19” James Toscano, president of PCAPT, told CJ.

Though the group isn’t yet seeking legislation, Toscano said consumer pressure can lead to better policies.

“We want to give college administrators the chance to ‘do the right thing’ by their students instead of asking for state or federal policy intervention. But this is a common-sense, kitchen table issue, and I won’t be surprised if lawmakers take an interest in the Tuition Payer Bill of Rights as a way to respond to public outcry. We’ll be ready to give them suggestions.” Toscano told CJ.

Rising higher education costs are linked to other economic woes, especially among low-income Americans, said Claudio Martinez, executive director of Zero Debt Massachusetts.

COVID-19 has exacerbated the problems.

“We are seeing housing issues, food insecurity, and any other economic issue you can think of due to low income. … Student debt only adds to the despair people have felt before and the concern over the value of college,” Martinez told CJ.

“What we want short term is protection of consumer rights. Long term, we want to see reinvestment into the quality of higher education.”

Editor-in-Chief Rick Henderson provided additional reporting.