College students taking online classes in Kansas could get a refund. The total cost is unknown.
College students taking classes remotely could be in line for a refund — if Republican legislators frustrated with state universities over their COVID-19 mitigation efforts have their way.
It comes as part of a broader fight over whether residents are due compensation for inconveniences stemming from COVID-19 lockdowns in the early days of the pandemic, including families whose children in K-12 schools were learning from home.
At Kansas Board of Regents institutions, disruptions have continued up through the present day, although how many students are taking classes remotely varies from university to university. At Emporia State University, three-quarters of students are learning in person; at Kansas State University that figure is 28%.
Universities and their backers have argued that the precautions remain necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially at larger institutions, like the University of Kansas.
"You can’t get 1,000 students in a room right now," said Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa.
State university presidents on Wednesday reported to the regents that virus mitigation measures have been largely successful, although those have relied on keeping in-person contact between students and faculty low.
K-State president Richard Myers told the regents he and other university administration are pretty positive that the university can "return to a pretty normal situation" in the fall, but much remains to be seen.
"COVID-19 is going to keep this a dicey game, but we're willing to play that game and we're handling things the very best we can," he said.
Refund proposal for students taking online classes amid COVID-19 cancellations
But Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell, succeeded Wednesday in adding language to the board of regents' budget that would require students to get a full refund for any day where classes were canceled because of the pandemic. They would get half their money back for each day their classes were online.
It is unclear how much the plan would cost in its current form, although the total bill would likely run into the millions of dollars. But Tarwater viewed it as an opening salvo in what is expected to be a larger debate, as he believed lawmakers needed more leverage to ensure universities take the notion of making students whole seriously.
"I’m a business guy and when you go into a negotiation, you need a position," Tarwater said. "This gives us a position."
The frustration is personal, he said, pointing to one of his sons, who attends the University of Kansas. He alleged that students are learning less while still moving about on campus and exposing themselves to COVID-19.
All the while, he argues, families are stuck holding the bill.
"My son who goes to KU has spent all of his savings and my savings, it is tens of thousands of dollars," Tarwater said. "And we've taken out student loans, just like all other families do. And for what? This last year they really didn't learn anything. The institutions should be made whole, or at least partially whole. Our families are crying for help."
There are concerns about the unknowns that such a proposal might bring.
House Appropriations Committee chair Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, said the aim would be to have the regents present to the panel and for a solution to get worked out, even if it looks different than what Tarwater is proposing.
But he was sympathetic to the broader idea, noting that universities received over $100 million in direct federal aid from Washington, with more potentially to come in legislation currently being debated in Congress.
Roughly half of the money universities received last spring from the CARES Act went back to students, reimbursing them for room and board and some fees.
But Waymaster noted that online delivery was still cheaper than in-person classes, meaning universities could be coming out ahead.
"Should there be a reimbursement back to the students?" he said in an interview. "Yeah, I think there should be."
The debate isn't going away anytime soon and it could metastasize in the coming weeks into a broader discussion over the future of higher education.
Proposed university budget cuts already in the works
Universities are anxious about proposed cuts in Gov. Laura Kelly's most recent budget request. According to calculations from the Kansas Legislative Research Department, the proposal would slash $37.4 million in state general funding for higher education, only partially offset by Kelly's recommendation to give the regents $10.3 million to allocate at their discretion.
That amount is approximately the amount state university employees would have received under Kelly's proposal to give state employees a 2.5% raise, but Kelly, for unclear reasons, exempted higher education from that proposal.
The regents on Wednesday voted to instead commit that $10.3 million funding, should the Legislature approve it, to kickstart debt service on nearly $1.5 billion in much-needed maintenance or upgrade costs at the hundreds of university buildings managed by the regents.
Kelly's proposed budget cuts have prompted quick mobilization from university leaders, with Doug Girod, chancellor of the University of Kansas, writing in a letter to faculty and staff that he was “disappointed and concerned" by the cuts. He said the cuts — projected to result in a nearly $75 million shortfall for the university next school year — would amount to the largest budget reduction by percentage since 2010, and the largest dollar decrease in KU history.
The budgets still need to be taken up by the full Legislature, although subcommittees have signed off on Kelly's higher education budget as presented.
But even some Democrats believe that more needs to be done to adapt to a higher education world that could be permanently changed by COVID-19. Proponents point to Fort Hays State University, which has been aggressive in rolling out online learning options, even before the pandemic, and argue other schools need to take baby steps toward innovation as well.
Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita, said that message from universities is "give us more money and we're going to keep the old model."
But the status quo, he said, isnt sustainable.
"You don’t think there is a radical change going on in the university systems across the country? We’re closing our eyes," he said. "What I would have hoped is some universities would have said this is our opportunity to jump ahead to a new service delivery model."