Over the last few weeks, the University of Maine has had the strenuous task of providing thousands of graduate and undergraduate students with safe living and learning accommodations. Sanitizer dispensers dot the campus, and classes take place in rooms specifically arranged to abide by social distancing mandates. Masks are mandatory, and a three-phase testing plan is in place for the rest of the fall semester up until Thanksgiving break. Because of all these safety measures, UMaine is thankfully one of the schools that have not made national headlines with life-threatening outbreaks.
That being said, there’s a single aspect of the new post-pandemic university experience that the leadership at UMaine has not yet fully addressed: what happens if we’re suddenly forced back online due to a new outbreak? Given the recent phase one and two test results, any future outbreaks might not occur for a few weeks at the least, but American colleges have shown themselves to be extremely risky hot spots for the virus, accounting for at least 88,000 cases nationwide.
If UMaine is forced to return to fully online classes, what does that mean for the thousands of residential students still living on campus? The experience of this semester might be similar to that of the 2020 spring semester: residence halls shut down, on-campus jobs ended unceremoniously, and thousands of students returned home to spend another couple of months on Zoom. However, it seems that there may be one major difference: the university has been irresolute on the issue of financial refunds. Students were not refunded their tuition last semester, so it would be hard to expect a refund for the same service this semester. The Bursar’s Office has also recently stated that there is no plan to refund room and board for on-campus students should classes return online.
A decision like this, coming from a university that has taken so many steps to protect the health and comfort of its students, is extremely bizarre. It is strange enough that the university chose this semester to raise the cost of tuition, room and board and general fees by at least $626 per student. To even imply that students are not entitled to at least a partial refund if they spend less than the full semester on campus is ridiculous and insulting. It gives the impression that the University of Maine System chose to reopen more so because of financial reasons than their educational obligation to students.
It would not be difficult to take a solid yes or no stance on the topic of a room and board refund, but the fact that the university has refused to do so suggests that administrators are aware that keeping room and board money would be controversial, but plans to do it regardless. There is plenty to be thankful for at UMaine this semester: we’ve managed to return to school safely and with confidence, classes have continued as planned and there’s no threat of major outbreaks so far. But if UMaine plans on charging students for room and board they can’t use, their plan is still deeply flawed.