Confronting costs during COVID-19
When Eugene Thomas ’22 received an email from Yale College announcing the closure of residential colleges in March, he knew he would have to look for a job to replace the earnings from his student job on campus, while also continuing his spring classes online.
A first-generation, low-income student, Thomas receives Yale’s most generous financial aid, a package with a $0 parent contribution — but he worried that the loss of his campus job, coupled with the need to help his family pay for groceries once he arrived at home, would pose a financial burden for him. Upon first reading the email announcing the closure, he reached out to different connections he had back in his hometown of New York City as well as his high school internship coordinator to see if there were any available jobs. He hoped to work at his old high school, but a week later, New York City public schools announced they would continue the semester remotely and stopped all non-essential work. Thomas was jobless.
“I had reached out to so many different connections that I had within New York City, about potential job plans and of course didn’t hear anything back because those people didn’t know anything at all about jobs during COVID,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ worries were later alleviated when Yale announced it would provide students with room and board refunds and compensate them for their projected work study hours. Still, he was not alone in his initial concerns. As Yale and other schools across the nation closed their campuses on short notice at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, students were forced to scramble for alternate housing arrangements and flights home — a situation that proved costly for many students from low-income backgrounds.
Meanwhile, the pandemic left the University with the task of creating a financially feasible plan to support students during a time of unprecedented chaos and confusion. According to the Yale financial aid website, the University in the past few months has “specifically focused” on meeting the needs of students and families facing significant challenges as a result of the pandemic. Interviews with University administrators and students from various financial backgrounds offer an inside look into Yale’s actions, considerations and priorities as it aimed to support students who were struck particularly hard by the financial ramifications of the pandemic this spring.
According to Senior Associate Dean of Yale College Burgwell Howard, the University began to gather the available public health information from the state and federal government as the pandemic picked up in early March. Administrators decided to rapidly shift the remainder of the semester to an exclusively online format, to help de-densify the campus community and reduce the chance of an outbreak among University students, staff and faculty.
“Residential colleges are inherently social spaces that bring students together in the dining halls, common area and suites, and of course classrooms are, too,” wrote Yale College Dean Marvin Chun in an email to the News. “Ordinarily, this proximity among students is an advantage, but here it posed insurmountable challenges to containing an outbreak. From a public health perspective, it was essential to de-crowd campus as soon as possible. For most students, the safest place to go was home.”
According to Howard, the Yale College Dean’s Office felt it safest for students to head straight home from wherever they were during spring break rather than first returning to campus.
Amid the confusion, University administrators say that Yale aimed to promote equity despite the unprecedented circumstances. In an effort to lower the barriers to students complying with this need, students who had purchased emergency travel tickets to go home or tickets in hopes of returning back to campus on April 15 — the original date that the University announced students would be able to return to campus — were reimbursed.
In late March, the University announced that all students living on campus or participating in the meal plan — regardless of financial aid status — would be eligible to receive pro-rated credits for room and board. This amount totaled to $3,648.65 and was based on the number of days remaining in the term after residential colleges closed. Students had the option to either request a refund or leave the credit in their accounts for future semesters.
After the announcement, Thomas requested a refund for the full amount. This refund, coupled with remote work study, not only allowed him to focus on his online education, but also served as the main source of income for his family.
The decision to issue the credits was made by the Yale College Dean’s Office. According to former Dean of Student Affairs Camille Lizarríbar, this decision came after it became clear what portion of room and board students would not use. The refunds issued, she said, were intended to help students with their living expenses.
According to Chun, these refunds were a “loss, certainly, that will need to be covered by Yale’s budget.”
Funds for both the credits and transport home for students were collected from across all budgets within Yale College as well as Yale’s designated emergency funds. In light of the closure of the residential colleges, all spending from Yale College departments was suspended so that all available funds that might normally be used in April, May or June, could be diverted to the needs of the emergency, Howard said.
Abnner Olivares ’23, a first-generation and low-income student, was back home in Los Angeles when he was told not to return to campus. Living with a family of nine in housing meant for three people — in addition to waking up three hours earlier for online classes — impacted Olivares’s academic performance due to his new living circumstances.
After the announcement of the housing and dining credit, Olivares requested a refund. During the remainder of the spring semester, he used the money to help support his family as his father had stopped working. In addition to helping support his family, he used some of the money for expenses during his summer internship.
Abeyaz Amir ’22, another first-generation, low-income student, said that the room and board credits helped alleviate a lot of the earlier stress he had regarding rent payments. Both Amir and Thomas spent their room and board credits on rent and family groceries, then deposited the remaining balance in their bank accounts. Amir said that credits issued were partly used to cover two months of mortgages on his family’s house. This, he said, allowed him to have a stable place to study.
“I was actually really shocked by this because I had already assumed that tuition-paying students would be receiving a refund,” Amir said. “But I do think that it’s great that they gave a refund to everyone because I technically ‘would use’ that money. I got back like $3,700 which is … more money than I have in my bank account right now. To me it’s a huge sum of money.”
Although Amir and some other students receiving financial aid weren’t expecting to receive the funds, it was important for Yale to take living costs into consideration regardless of financial aid status, said Director of Undergraduate Financial Aid Scott Wallace-Juedes.
“From my perspective, I think it’s just important that we treated all students the same, regardless of whether or not it came from financial aid or whether [funds] came from the families themselves,” Wallace-Juedes said. “Because, I mean, financial aid includes room and board in our cost of attendance for very specific reasons — because it’s a real expense for families. So you’re either paying it out of pocket, or if you don’t have the funds to pay it.”
“I was actually really shocked by this because I had already assumed that tuition-paying students would be receiving a refund. But I do think that it’s great that they gave a refund to everyone because I technically ‘would use’ that money. I got back like $3,700 which is … more money than I have in my bank account right now. To me it’s a huge sum of money.”
—Abeyaz Amir '22
OTHER EQUITY CONCERNS
Although the room and board refunds alleviated financial pressure for many students after campus shut down, equity concerns still remained following the campus closure and sudden switch to remote learning.
Students who were unable to return home — either because home was not a safe or viable option or because of the rapidly evolving travel restrictions — were permitted to remain on campus with safety guidelines in place.
These decisions included consolidating the number of dining halls, while addressing students’ dietary needs, de-densifying student housing on campus, while making sure students still had some access to a “community” of other remaining students and ensuring that students had access to critical services like Yale Health.
“The primary issues were related to food, housing, healthcare and general safety,” Howard said. “So the most pressing decisions were focused on how to address these concerns, while offering the opportunity for as much normalcy for the remaining students.”
For students returning home, administrators took stock of what resources they would need to complete the semester remotely.
“Once students had arrived safely home, we began trying to assess the needs of students to complete the semester remotely — beginning with those students we knew had the greatest financial needs, or may have the most limited access to the technology necessary to complete the semester,” Howard said.
The YCDO organized a plan to retrieve laptops and other essential items from student rooms on campus and ship them to students. Emergency loans of laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots were also provided for students who did not have access to a computer or stable internet connection. In certain cases, emergency grants were provided to students in order to enhance their home internet capacities or to fund repairs on their existing technology to allow students to participate in their online classes, Howard said.
COSTS TO THE UNIVERSITY
The only permitted departmental spending during this period was for student wages. Departments, residential colleges and University offices continued to pay student workers their expected hourly wages for remote work. In cases where remote work was impossible, departments were instructed to pay their student workers for the number of hours they would have spent working had they remained on campus. For some students, continuing to receive these wages has filled the gaps in family income.
“Basically the money I’ve [been] getting from campus I’m saving because my dad has stopped working, since he’s 65, and the money I make is helping support us for a little,” Olivares said.
In addition to student accommodations during the pandemic, the University also had to formulate a plan for staff members who shifted to working on a significantly depopulated campus.
According to University Provost Scott Strobel, Yale Housing and Dining staff continued to be paid throughout the spring and summer. In addition, the Yale Housing and Dining staff are currently being paid the same amount and with the same number of workers as they would if the campus was operating at full capacity, Strobel said.
“We used University reserves to pay their salaries even though some of the work stopped when students left the campus and some of them were not able to work from home,” Strobel said. “The cost to cover salaries for employees who could not work was more than $25 million.”
Other schools across the nation — such as Stanford University, Harvard University, Columbia University and Cornell University — issued similar financial policies regarding students’ housing and dining costs during the spring semester.
In an email sent to Cornell students, the university said it would provide “on-campus students with emergency financial assistance to support their relocation expenses by offsetting the value of their remaining housing contract beyond March 29, 2020.”
Undergraduate students who resided in a residence hall at Columbia also received a prorated refund based on the day students were mandated to vacate their residence halls.
Not all schools issued refunds, however. Julia Coccaro, a sophomore at Barnard College last year, spent days waiting for answers from Barnard before she was notified that she would not receive a housing refund based on her financial aid package.
According to Coccaro, she wanted to use the refund to support living costs in New York City. Since she did not receive a refund from the school, Coccaro lived on campus in Morningside Heights for the remainder of Barnard’s spring semester.
As the pandemic draws on, colleges’ financial responses continue to vary across the country. While Yale’s budget allows the University to adapt in this changing time, some smaller colleges are cash-strapped and unable to do so.
MacMurray College in Illinois, for example, announced in May that it had to close after 174 years, making it the first higher education victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rutgers University, a public school located in New Jersey, has reported they will lose $200 million in revenue due to COVID-19, according to university President Robert Barchi at a board of governors meeting earlier this year. A quarter of that — $50 million — will be used to refund students for unused campus services.
“Basically, I’m pretty grateful for the way Yale handled this whole situation in the little time we left for break to the time we were asked to not return,” Olivares said. “I know a lot of my friends from small liberal arts colleges who are also FGLI didn’t get refunds or aren’t currently getting paid for their on-campus jobs until the end of the school year. You know the only way Yale is able to do this is because of how much money it has, and I’m thankful that they actually used their budget to support students for the couple weeks left in the semester.”
“You know the only way Yale is able to do this is because of how much money it has, and I’m thankful that they actually used their budget to support students for the couple weeks left in the semester.”
—Abnner Olivares '22
While students like Thomas and Amir have applauded Yale’s efforts during the first few months of the pandemic, others say Yale still falls behind other schools for the fall 2020 semester.
In light of the transition to remote learning, some schools across the nation have offered tuition reductions for students. Earlier this summer, Princeton University announced a 10 percent reduction in tuition for the 2020–21 academic year. Georgetown University issued a similar tuition reduction for students not invited back to campus. Georgetown students returning to campus will be charged full tuition with a 20 percent reduction in housing and dining charges.
Meanwhile, tuition remains unchanged at Yale: $28,850 per term, or $57,700 for the full year.
“Given that our education is now cheaper to provide and of lower quality than in previous years, there is no justification for Yale not to lower its tuition, especially when students are already struggling to cover emergency costs during a global pandemic,” said outgoing Sophomore Council President Reilly Johnson ’22.
According to the official statement on Yale’s website, Yale College continues to invest in order to provide an “excellent education” to its undergraduate students.
“Whether they learn in person or remotely, or live on campus or off, they will be able to continue their education, earn full academic credit and benefit from the university’s personal, health and academic services,” the website reads.
An additional $388 per term was added to the unbilled cost of attendance for any term that a student is enrolled remotely. According to the financial aid website, this cost is for expenses such as “establishing, maintaining or improving your Internet service.”
In addition, students who are enrolled remotely are not charged for room and board, and the student share portion of their financial aid award is waived for the term they elect to enroll remotely.
The total estimated cost of attendance for a student in residence for the full year, enrolled remotely for the full year, or in residence for one term and enrolled remotely for one term is $78,850, $69,106 and $73,978 respectively.
In light of the financial impacts of the pandemic, Yale College is covering the cost of tuition for two summer courses in New Haven or online for first-year undergraduates and sophomores who enroll for the full 2020–21 academic year, with at least one semester conducted remotely, Strobel said.
“[Yale] is providing additional financial support for on-campus room and board to eligible students who receive financial aid” during the summer term, Strobel said. “Eligible students may instead apply the cost of tuition of those two courses toward the cost of tuition of two credits in a study abroad program led by a Yale faculty member. They may also, as a third option, apply the cost of tuition for the two courses toward a directed research experience.”
Amir, who is currently enrolled and living off campus in New Haven, said that he’s looking forward to the fall semester. In his view, the University has been “really accommodating” thus far.
According to Amir, he feels that the University has done a good job this semester of supporting him and ensuring that this semester of online education is better than the last, both due to improved financial aid for courses as well as improved online teaching from professors.
In his 3D modeling class this semester, Amir was provided a VR set and a laptop from the University. This, coupled with modified syllabi, gives Amir hope that Yale’s second semester of remote learning will be better than its first.
“I think that in some ways, the school is almost trying to compensate — maybe not compensate, but generously thank — its students for coming back the semester,” Amir said. “That’s kind of what it feels like.”