Public university tuition rebates demanded by House GOP could top $150 million

photo by: Screen capture/Kansas Reflector

Blake Flanders, president of the Kansas Board of Regents, said a House budget amendment requiring tuition refunds to students for online courses and canceled classes could cost more than $150 million and be devastating to the public university system.

TOPEKA — A budget amendment passed by a Kansas House committee could require public universities to refund students more than $150 million in tuition for canceled classes and courses shifted online during the COVID-19 pandemic, state Board of Regents President Blake Flanders told legislators Thursday.

Flanders and legislators spoke about the proposal at a meeting of the Republican-dominated House Appropriations Committee. He and university CEOs were there to outline public universities’ instructional and financial challenges one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and the discussion turned to the amendment, which would require 50% refunds to students for each day their university courses were taught online and 100% refunds for any day classes were canceled as the coronavirus spread across the country.

The projected cost of refunds at the University of Kansas would range from $80 million to $90 million and would cripple the challenging work to deal with large revenue shortfalls in tuition, housing, athletics, parking and other services, Flanders said. And he said adding Kansas State, Wichita State, Emporia State, Pittsburg State and Fort Hays State universities to the mix could double the price tag on tuition rebates.

“If you just do that multiplier, I’d expect we’d be well north of $150 million,” Flanders said. “That amendment would be devastating to the system.”

It was one year ago that the Board of Regents reluctantly granted university chief executive officers the authority to make changes in the academic calendar in response to uncertainties of the pandemic. The universities moved to suspend in-person instruction and created systems for offering courses in a virtual format. These preventive measures came at a cost that was partially subsidized by federal COVID-19 relief from Congress.

Last fall, enrollment declined at the universities, as well as at community colleges. Over time, the universities migrated to a combination of in-person, hybrid and online instructional options that varied from campus to campus. The universities plan to return to face-to-face instruction this fall semester.

“Ensuring our students made progress was essential,” said Steve Scott, president of Pittsburg State University. He said PSU “wasn’t cowered by the virus. We figured out how to live with the virus. I think that is an important distinction.”

Tarwater’s critique

Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Stilwell Republican, said tuition refunds could be justified in the way reimbursements of university students for food and dormitory contracts were financed with federal relief dollars. He said families of college students working hard to afford higher education shouldn’t pay for canceled classes or pay the full price for online courses that might not serve students as well as in-person ones.

“Have you looked at it from the family side?” Tarwater asked. “Is there a plan given that there is more federal money coming down the pipe?”

Flanders said the simple answer was no. He said that despite the House committee’s adoption of the tuition rebate amendment, the Board of Regents hadn’t started developing a strategy for refunding tens of millions of dollars to about 250,000 university students.

“I guess that’s not the answer exactly you want to hear, but that’s the one I’m here to give you,” Flanders said.

During the House committee hearing, Tarwater personalized the issue by raising objections to the online courses his sons took at Kansas State and KU. He said another of his sons recently toured Wichita State’s campus and was left with the impression that few students were taking in-person classes. The state representative said he was “completely disappointed” by Wichita State and that his son would drop it from a list of potential colleges.

WSU president Rick Muma told the House budget committee that 40% of the university’s students were taking in-person courses. He said the campus may have been sparsely populated during Tarwater’s tour because WSU was complying with Sedgwick County’s health directives intended to thwart community spread of COVID-19. He said it was “really difficult” to hear about Tarwater’s experience.

In-person mandate

Augusta GOP Rep. Kristey Williams, who also serves on the House budget committee, said university students suffered from lack of classroom experiences and socialization that typified a college campus.

“I hope moving forward we will always provide an in-person experience option for our students,” she said.

But Flanders said he wasn’t in favor of a blanket policy mandating face-to-face instruction at the state universities. The virus has emerged in communities at different times and in different ways, and he said there was value in being nimble with a virus that could be unpredictable.

He also said the face-to-face format would not go away because it was the preference of traditional students.

Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kan., said decisions by the Board of Regents and university administrators should be praised rather than denounced. She said that no one knew a year ago what path the virus would take, but that actions taken across higher education certainly helped tamp down demand for intensive care unit beds in hospitals as the pandemic spread. She said lives were saved because the universities didn’t become superspreaders.

KU Chancellor Douglas Girod, who is also a physician, said the ramifications of COVID-19 weren’t readily apparent in the early stages of the pandemic. Of course, there were no vaccines or off-the-shelf tests available.

“I don’t want to leave the impression that this was perfect by any stretch of the imagination,” Girod said. “We did this very quickly. We perfected it. We learned a lot. We are getting better at it, but the reality is pandemics are not fun. There was no way to do this gracefully.”

Faculty dismissals

On a separate issue, Williams and Tarwater praised the KU chancellor for not dismissing the idea of applying a new policy approved by the Board of Regents that would make it easier for the six state universities to dismiss tenured faculty members.

KU said it wouldn’t rule out using the policy, but other universities in the state said they didn’t have plans at the moment to deploy it. KU faculty, staff and students have protested administrators’ refusal to promise not to dismiss tenured faculty when making cuts.

“I only wish the other schools would have rallied together, because we need to think about the fiscal strength of our universities in tough times,” Williams said. “I’m sorry you had to stand alone on that.”

Girod said academic program and workforce changes would follow trends that included erosion of the number of Americans in the college-age population, failure of state appropriations to keep pace with inflation and realistic limits on how high the university could increase tuition. KU’s work on these issues began long before COVID-19 emerged, he said, but the virus added pressure to proceed with changes.

“I wouldn’t say COVID made it easier,” the chancellor said. “It made it imminently necessary now.”

Flanders said the Board of Regents would strive to address staffing, program and building issues on each of the campuses to better serve objectives of education, research, public service and economic development. Decisions about changes will certainly be disputed because every program, building or laboratory had a constituency, he said.

“It could be a little noisy,” he said. “It’s tough work. I hear from policymakers, legislators. Sometimes they say, ‘Hey, I hope you won’t cut that program.’ There has to be something reduced.”

— Tim Carpenter is a reporter for Kansas Reflector.

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