PULLMAN – Max Elston walked through an empty campus Wednesday to Washington State University’s financial aid office, only to find it closed. He was hoping to get reimbursement for the $2,000 he’ll pay for an unoccupied dorm over the next two months.
“It feels like a ghost town,” said Elston, a junior criminal justice major from Spokane.
The campus feels dead because all three WSU locations, including the one in Spokane, have moved online as part of an emergency action to limit coronavirus transmission. Students have been asked not to return to Pullman after spring break, which ended Monday.
But while many of the university’s functions and facilities have been shuttered – including the library, museums and recreational centers – some students fear they will still be billed for services they can no longer use. No longer allowed to sit in lecture halls and classrooms, students find themselves adjusting to online classes their professors had a little over a week to prepare.
Elston said many of his friends have been laid off or lost hours at their jobs. One of his friends relies on pay from one of the university’s recreation centers, which shut down this week.
Those sudden and significant changes midway through the semester have led Elston and some 7,000 others to sign a petition calling for WSU to grant partial refunds for the semester.
The petition also urges WSU to offer students a choice between pass/fail grades or letter grades on an altered scale, which would make the lowest possible score a B-plus.
Dozens of students commenting on the petition said they never intended to pay for quickly arranged online classes. Many said online classes would be too difficult to keep up with on top of the financial and emotional strain the pandemic has caused.
The typical in-state student at WSU pays about $12,000 per semester for tuition, fees, housing, dining and books, according to the university’s website. Students from out of state pay more than $19,000 per semester.
“We actually have students who are experiencing homelessness,” said Phil Weiler, WSU’s Vice President for Marketing and Communications.
But the administrators don’t know what they can afford to do to accommodate those concerns.
The university is tracking undisclosed financial losses and costs of the move online. Weiler doesn’t anticipate seeing any relief from government funding in the near term.
Dorms are still open, but dining halls can only offer grab-and-go food. There has been no promise to refund housing or food expenses at WSU, let alone fees for nonessentials like access to the recreation center building.
“It’s kind of like taxes for roads: I might never drive on that particular road, but if my grocery store is stocked with food and the truck has to use that road, that benefits me,” Weiler said. “This is a similar thing, because it’s not like we can stop the debt payment on that building because of a short-term issue.”
But to Mariela Frias, the student who started the petition, the university is asking students to pay for a building that isn’t being used.
Frias said it’s one thing to keep paying for Cougar Health Services, the on-campus medical facility. She said she’s happy to invest in the health center for the sake of other students who are still on campus. But for many students who are jobless or homeless, Frias said the money they’d get back from closed nonessential facilities will make a big impact.
“If the university doesn’t give partial refunds to these students, in all honesty, that’s criminal,” Frias said. “That’s stealing from vulnerable students.”
Frias doesn’t know if she’ll have enough money after rent this month to buy food. She was supposed to spend a week in California meeting her partner’s family, and now she’s sheltering in place there for the foreseeable future.
The petition’s final demand – to postpone rather than cancel graduation ceremonies – was answered Wednesday in an announcement from the administration: The May 9 graduation will be online, and ceremonies will be postponed to August.
The university has task forces looking into the consequences of each proposed change, Weiler said.
One team is considering extending the deadline to allow students to choose pass/fail grades over letters. Another team is going through fees “line by line,” assessing each one for potential reimbursements.
“Those institutions that have made quick decisions have lived to regret them,” Weiler said. “We’re learning from some of the issues other universities are trying to unwind or untangle right now.”
The board of trustees at Central Washington University recently declared a State of Financial Exigency that the administration attributed to the outbreak, which it expects will lead to losses in revenue from reduced enrollment, canceled events, closed dining halls and stores, and reduced tax revenue from the state. The board’s resolution directed CWU’s president to take any necessary and legal action to maintain the university.
Unlike WSU, Eastern Washington University is on a quarterly academic calendar, which allowed EWU to respond to the coronavirus outbreak by finishing the winter quarter early. It will hold spring classes online, with a delay to the start of the quarter until April 6.
Eastern and WSU students are still allowed to live in campus dormitories if they choose and are asked to notify the university of their intent to do so. But EWU students who remain off campus will not be charged for housing or meal plans for the spring quarter, according to university spokesman Dave Meany.
“We’re doing everything we can to not just encourage, but make sure this transition is easy for (students),” Meany said. “This whole situation is obviously hard for everyone, but we’re trying to make sure the switch to online is easy.”
At WSU, where there are seven weeks left in the semester, Weiler said ending early isn’t an option, as it would limit financial aid access.
To address the other petitioned demands, Weiler said administrators aren’t dragging their feet – they’re being deliberate. They understand students are under new financial pressures, and they want to provide students with options.
But Frias said students facing financial hardship shouldn’t have to bolster the university. She feels in the dark about the university’s decision-making process. She said it would be easy for the university to tweet about the specific student concerns it is addressing.
“Saying, ‘Cougs, we are working together as an administration to make sure all of you are being heard’ – no, we want more,” Frias said. “We need to know what you’re hearing about. Specifying what you’re talking about shows us that we’re being heard.”
Spokesman-Review reporter Adam Shanks contributed to this story.
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