University official says refunding tuition for online classes would be ‘devastating’
A proposal to require the state's public colleges and universities to reimburse students for tuition on days they took remote or hybrid classes would be "devastating," the president of the Kansas Board of Regents told legislators Thursday.
The idea comes as all seven of the state's public institutions of higher education say they will be returning to a learning experience in the fall that resembles what students would have received before COVID-19, including in-person classes, commencement and sporting events.
But legislators are still pushing a plan, included in the Board of Regents' budget last month, that would require students to get a full refund for any day when classes were canceled because of the pandemic. They would get half their money back for each day instruction was online.
Blake Flanders, president of the Board of Regents, said the price tag would be hefty, however. He pegged the total cost at "well north" of $150 million and said it would cost the University of Kansas, the state's flagship school, $80 or $90 million alone.
"I’d like to think about a pathway going forward," Flanders said. "But that amendment would be devastating to the system. We are trying to get our fiscal house in order."
Individual universities underscored the loss in revenue. At KU that shortfall, which came from a dip in housing, dining and other ancillary revenues, totals $72 million; at K-State, the loss is expected to be $96 million.
But Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell, was unimpressed with the pleas of destitution from the universities. He recounted a recent college visit to Wichita State with his high school son and said it was "disappointing" most students were still taking virtual classes.
He said families deserved more of a voice in the process.
"They’re the only ones that haven’t been made whole, and they’re your client and they’re the ones leaving your universities," Tarwater.
Some form of refunds would be especially important, he said, given that universities are in line for a cut of $40 billion of funding in the most recent COVID-19 aid package, which President Joe Biden signed into law Thursday.
Restrictions on how the funds can be used are unclear, with university presidents giving conflicting responses on what they hoped to use the money for. It is expected that half of the share received by Kansas universities would have to go to helping students — which could include tuition refunds.
In the meantime, Tarwater floated "charging K-12 (education)" for any students who matriculated to colleges but were unprepared for the rigor of a college course load and had to take remedial classes, although it is unclear what that might look like.
And Republicans said they wanted to see more schools follow the path of KU in embracing a controversial policy to allow the administration to more easily suspend, fire or dismiss any staff — including tenured professors.
The other universities have been authorized by the Board of Regents to take similar action but haven't as yet.
"I only wish that the other schools would have rallied together," said Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta. "We need to think about the fiscal strength in tough times. That was a tough decision and I'm sorry you (KU) had to stand alone."
KU Chancellor Doug Girod also defended potential cuts to humanities programs, pointing out a $37.4 million cut in state general funding for higher education in Gov. Laura Kelly's budget proposal. The pandemic helped make programming changes more palatable as well, he said.
"I wouldn’t say COVID made it easier but it made it imminently necessary now," Girod said. "It put us in a mode to do things much quicker than we would have anyway."
Looking ahead to the fall, universities are saying that they will be returning to some semblance of normalcy.
Much would still depend on how quickly faculty and staff could be vaccinated, with some university leaders ruing the fact that professors weren't considered to be on the same level as teachers in the state's vaccination plan.
But all seven universities said they were planning on holding some form of in-person commencement in the spring and fall. Most classes would be face-to-face and students who felt their previous online classes weren't adequate would be able to audit them free of charge.
"Our plans involve a pretty normal fall — if the pandemic cooperates with us," said Allison Garrett, president of Emporia State University.