Originally published in Business Insider on March 27, 2020.
Earlier this week, Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, announced that students would be welcome to return back to campus after spring break, despite the worsening COVID-19 pandemic. Classes will be held online, but academic and residential buildings are open.
“Our thinking was, ‘Let’s get them back as soon as we can—the ones who want to come back,” he said in a statement on Monday. About 1,700 students were on the Lynchburg, Virginia campus by Wednesday, according to a spokesperson.
Falwell’s move sparked immediate backlash from state and local officials, including Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who has limited public and private gatherings in his state to ten people, and Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy, who called the decision “reckless.”
Liberty University, a private evangelical college, is one of the largest Christian colleges in the world. More than 15,000 students are enrolled at its Lynchburg campus, with an additional 94,000 students enrolled virtually across the country.
Many observers, including Liberty University students, have argued that Falwell’s latest decision is politically motivated, as he’s long been one of President Trump’s most ardent and high-profile supporters. Two weeks ago Falwell went on “Fox and Friends” to suggest the media’s focus on the pandemic was just a new tactic to bring down the president. Earlier this week Trump made it clear he’d like to see America’s economy back up and running by Easter, in mid-April.
Yet recent statements from Falwell and other university officials suggest the decision might be less about standing in solidarity with Trump and more about protecting the university’s cash flow.
Across the country as colleges and universities have closed in response to COVID-19 and required students to go home, families have been calling for meal plan and housing refunds. While most higher-education institutions have signaled they won’t be refunding tuition since they’re still offering online instruction, many have said they will move to refund room and board where possible.
But so far, despite pleas from Liberty University families, Liberty has bucked pressure to offer any direct refunds.
On Sunday the school released a statement saying “there is no obligation to generally offer pro-rated refunds for unused room and board.” The university added that while officials are considering if and how Liberty could financially assist students, “many operational costs for the university do not decrease with fewer students on campus.” (On Friday this statement was taken down.)
Over the last week on a Facebook page for Liberty University parents, many have argued that Falwell’s latest move to open residential halls was designed to make it easier to reject calls to refund families the cost of room and board. They pointed to a campus-wide email sent on March 17, during Spring Break, by Liberty’s office of residential life. “While students are currently allowed to return to live in the residence halls, we are encouraging you to consider staying home,” the email said. However three days later, as The Daily Beast reported, the office sent a new email that said: “[T]he intent of encouraging students to consider remaining at home was to simply advise students to think carefully about their choice and discuss the matter with their parents. It was not an endorsement or recommendation of that particular course of action.”
“It seems as if they are leaving the loophole of ‘allowing’ students to come back just to be able to not give refunds saying that you ‘elected’ to stay home,” wrote Debbie Turkington Schoeffler, a Liberty University parent, on the Facebook page. “Saying ‘we’re open so it’s your choice’ to come back or not as a way to keep from refunding room and board fees is truly awful,” Kaysie Durden Routh added.
“We, as Christ followers, are to be examples of His love, generosity and compassion,” Melissa Burkholder commented. “In my opinion, this is horrible that the university stands to profit on this as they will have far fewer mouths to feed, rooms to heat/cool, perhaps lower labor costs all because of something that was not the fault of these students. LU, with its endowments and other funding received can stand to shoulder the burden of this far easier than many of the families.”
On Wednesday a verified Liberty University Facebook moderator responded to some of the concerns raised by parents, saying that, “LU is still considering things.” By Friday morning, the school announced it would give just a $1,000 credit toward the fall semester, and nothing to students who choose not to return in the fall. Housing and dining plans range between $8,700 and $12,450, according to the university website.
“I was not trying to be rude or start drama on the page it is just lots of families are asking about it and we were told they are just not giving any refunds,” Schoeffler, the mother of a Liberty freshman, told Business Insider. “These kids pay thousands and thousands of dollars to go to [L]iberty and a big chunk of that is room and Board which they are not even able to use for the last two months.” Routh and Burkholder did not return requests for comment.
Students mounting protest
Students on campus also have been organizing for refunds. Liberty student Nathan Todd launched a Change.org petition five days ago calling for a fall semester credit, like the one Liberty just agreed to, but also for a refund for those who do not return in the fall. Calum Best, a member of the Liberty University student government, posted the petition on his Facebook page and urged his college to “make the responsible, caring move and provide refunds to affected students.”
Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb did not comment on the concern that residential halls may be open so the university could more easily deny families refunds. A spokesperson for the university’s Student Service Center also did not respond to Business Insider.
In a statement released on Wednesday, Liberty said, “Our students are part of the Lynchburg community! They work jobs, have apartments, make economic contributions and pay taxes. That they should be banned or discouraged from choosing to utilize the shelter and food sources that they paid for in a time of crisis is unthinkable.” And on Monday Falwell told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he believes “we have a responsibility to our students—who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here—to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board they’ve already paid for.”
Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education finance at Seton Hall University, told Business Insider that in general, colleges “with more money, more resources, will be able to offer refunds quickly.” Less wealthy private colleges and many public colleges may take longer to come up with the funds, or they may have to get approval from a governing board.
But all universities, he said, are trying to determine how to get through this crisis in the best financial position possible. “Colleges are concerned that even if things open back up as scheduled next year, will students want to go? Will they want to stay close to home?”
Falwell’s public comments suggest these concerns have influenced his decision to welcome students back to campus now. “We think Liberty’s practices will become the model for all colleges to follow in the fall if coronavirus is still an issue,” he said.