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Gaps in the system: Students petition for more refund options, BGSU open to individual conversations

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Gaps in the system: Students petition for more refund options, BGSU open to individual conversations

An active social work major who started a petition.

A loyal student who is disappointed in his university.

An out-of-state student who is uncertain about his financial position.

Students at BGSU come from many different backgrounds, each with their own set of needs — those needs have become much more complex in the wake of COVID-19. The majority of BGSU students have been moved off campus, and BGSU has refunded some costs associated with housing, dining and parking.

Since BGSU announced their refund process on March 30 via email, two student petitions have emerged on the website change.org. The first petition argues that students should be given the option to have Falcon Dollars, a type of currency used for on-campus dining, refunded and not rolled over to next semester. The second petition argues that fees for non-resident (out-of-state) students should be refunded, as the same fees for online learning are much cheaper than those for in-person learning.

 

Out of state and out of luck

In Downingtown, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, Joshua Reiner is searching for an affordable university with summer courses that will transfer to BGSU.

He is a second-year German education major and unable to take summer courses at BGSU because the out-of-state fees make it unaffordable. But BGSU won’t accept transfer course credits from community colleges in his area, so he’s left with two options: pursue an education he can’t afford or take summer courses from an alternate, online university.

He signed the petition that aims to waive out-of-state fees for 2020, which has over 320 supporters.

Ohio law requires public universities to assess and charge a fee to out-of-state students, BGSU’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer David Kielmeyer said. BGSU receives funding from the state for in-state students but not for out-of-state students. In other words, Ohio taxpayers aren’t providing funds for out-of-state students’ education, so these students must pay an extra fee.

He added that although the law requires a charge, the university has flexibility in how much the charge is.

Out-of-state fees for online learning are $132 more per semester than normal instructional fees, according to BGSU’s tuition and fees webpage. In contrast, out-of-state fees for in-person classes are about $4,000 more per semester than normal instructional fees.

There are less costs associated with online classes because they do not use the campus infrastructure and other costs required with in-person classes, Kielmeyer said.

Also, if BGSU were mainly an online university, then the online charges would be higher; however, the university is a residential campus. The lower fees were also a tactic to help build “eCampus” learning, Kielmeyer said.

Readjusting the costs would be difficult to do mid-semester. But if BGSU decides to move online in the fall, then adjusting would be more possible.

“That’s a much different situation where we can pre-plan and design the courses to meet that need,” Kielmeyer said. “But because we were halfway through the semester, there were fixed costs involved that had already been planned for that we have to pay and account for.”

But BGSU plans to continue with in-person classes in the fall.

BGSU has 2,600 out-of-state students registered this spring, and out-of-state fees generate $18 to $20 million annually for the university. The number would be “daunting” to refund Kielmeyer said.

Reiner said he understands the out-of-state fee is in place because of taxes, but BGSU should make an exception during this time.

“I think it would just be the right thing to do, to even decrease it by a certain amount,” Reiner said.

He hasn’t received any communication from BGSU about receiving a refund for out-of-state fees. The only information he has is through Facebook and the petition.

“Even just half of a refund, not even a full one. Because I understand we were there for half a semester — we should have to pay that non-residency fee. But not for the entire semester,” Reiner said.

He understands that BGSU needs the money as well, “but at the same time, how much money can they need?” He added that perhaps some members of administration should be taking pay cuts.

“We certainly did our best to be fair and equitable in the charges, but, again, it’s an unprecedented and difficult situation that we’re all kind of working our way through,” Kielmeyer said.

BGSU has refunded $11.5 million in meal plans, residency rates and parking and has lower out-of-state fees than Ohio State University, Miami University, Kent State University, Ohio University and the University of Toledo.

“We do our best to keep a BGSU education affordable,” Kielmeyer added.

 

Jumping through hoops

Sean Blakesley was expecting his Falcon Dollars to be refunded. But then BGSU announced the dollars would be carried over to fall semester, and only graduating seniors, transfer students and international students would receive refunds.

The second-year social work major saw some immediate flaws. Most students moving off campus, like himself, and students doing internships and studying abroad next semester were not planning on using Falcon Dollars in the fall because they wouldn’t be living on campus.

But Blakesley’s biggest concern was for students who need a Falcon Dollars refund to accommodate their current dining needs.

Dining Services was originally very final with their decision to not refund Falcon Dollars; so Blakesley decided to start a petition asking BGSU to provide an optional Falcon Dollars refund. It now has over 520 signatures.

He has been sending feedback from the petition to Dining Services, and the representatives there have been receptive. Blakesley said they seem willing to hear individual cases. The nine or 10 people he knows personally that have reached out to request a refund have received one.

“So, I think that, overall, they’re doing better than most universities and I’m really respectful and appreciative of those things,” Blakesley said. “But I think it’s very important that we do address these concerns as we have them so they can get a better idea of what we’re thinking, and what we’re doing, and what we’re going through.”

The biggest issue is that not everyone knows they can request a refund for Falcon Dollars, Blakesley said. Therefore, the petition’s end goal is to get an official announcement to everyone who has a meal plan.

“There are a lot of folks who really need that money right now but aren’t going to get access to it,” Blakesley said.

Students who want their Falcon Dollars refunded should contact Dining Services at dining@bgsu.edu and state their reasons for wanting a refund, Blakesley said. Students should also include their name and BGSU ID number in this email.

When he spoke to Dining Services, he said “I could tell the person I was talking to was on my side.”

But Dean Mraz Jr., second-year AYA math education major, had a different experience with the Falcon Dollars refund process.

“It was quite a battle that was unneeded stress,” Mraz said. “Especially during this time of pandemic.”

He will be living off campus next semester and didn’t want his Falcon Dollars to roll over.

When he reached out to Dining Services, the representative was very short with him and said there would be absolutely no refunds. A representative also told Mraz he could go back to Bowling Green and spend his Falcon Dollars right now, which he didn’t find helpful.

“Number one: We are under a stay at home order. Number two: I live an hour and a half away from BG. Number three: I’m not going to go back to BG to spend $5 on a Dunkin’ Donuts hot chocolate and drive all the way back,” Mraz said.

Mraz even contacted BGSU Student Legal Services but didn’t receive any helpful information. He did hear back from the BGSU President after a few days of sending Rogers daily emails. After he heard back from Rogers, Mraz’s request for a refund was reevaluated by Dining Services and he received his Falcon Dollars back.

Although Mraz eventually received a Falcon Dollars refund, he is still fighting for everyone to have the option.

“I have some time on my hands, so I was able to jump through these hoops, but for kids who are maybe working now 10-hour days,” Mraz said. “They don’t have the time to fight for their money back.”

BGSU should offer a more efficient way to get refunds, and Mraz said he thinks the university is withholding money from students.

As a math major, “numbers are my thing,” Mraz said, and money from Falcon Dollars is probably gathering interest in a bank.

“They’re profiting off of us during a worldwide pandemic. The money is rightfully ours,” he said.

Mraz added that he has a lot of respect for Rogers as an individual and president, but was disappointed that Rogers was involved in the decision to roll over Falcon Dollars.

“That decision should have been left up to the students,” Mraz said.

He is still happy with his choice to attend BGSU but said the situation could have been handled better and students deserve more options.

BGSU thought there was value in rolling the Falcon Dollars over to next semester, Kielmeyer said.

“Certainly, we understand the financial difficulties that students face. So, if someone is experiencing financial difficulty and would be better served by that money now versus Falcon Dollars for next year, we’re certainly going to try and work with them to accommodate them,” Kielmeyer said. “We’re happy to have those conversations, but we thought this was the best solution to start with.”

 

Options other than refunds

Because of the CARES Act, BGSU is now able to offer an emergency fund called the CARES Act Grant. The grant was introduced to students on May 1 via email.

Some students are automatically eligible for funds from this grant based on their FAFSA and if they were living off-campus, but the application is open to anybody, Director of Student Financial Aid and Scholarships Betsy Johnson said.

BGSU has to follow federal guidelines on specific eligibility standards, Johnson said. The funding needs to be for expenses related to the shutdown of campus operations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The act identifies six items that the funds can be used for: Food, housing, course materials, technology, healthcare and childcare.

Funds from the grant go directly to the student even if he or she owes the university a balance, Johnson said.

The application allows students to check off as many of the six items as they want, and there is a space for comments. Students are not required to verify how they spend the money.

CARES Act Grant form

The CARES Act Grant request form.

If a student doesn’t meet the standards, their application is sent to the Office of the Dean of Students on the main campus or Firelands campus to be considered for the Student Emergency Fund, Johnson said.

Money from both funds is limited — so BGSU isn’t able to give funds to everyone at the school, and applicants aren’t guaranteed the amount they request.

“But we are doing the best we can,” Johnson said.

Students received an email detailing the CARES Act Grant on May 1. As of May 11, BGSU has received 3,200 applications for the grant and has paid $3.3 million of the $6.5 million starting total.

According to an article on BGSU’s website, 500 students have received funding from the Student Emergency Fund, totaling $156,000 paid.

“We are committed to doing whatever we can do to help with the tools available, whether that’s the CARES Act, whether that’s the Student Emergency Fund, whether that’s discussions about individual refunds for Falcon Dollars,” Kielmeyer said.

Blakesley, who is also the Undergraduate Student Government senator for the College of Health and Human Services, said the CARES Act Grant is a simple application and has two requirements: the applicant must be enrolled at BGSU and have FAFSA on file.

Students should still have the option to receive a Falcon Dollars refund because some students would get more money back from refunded Falcon Dollars than they would from the two emergency funds, and every student’s situation is different, Blakesley said.

“I’m very fortunate where I was able to come home with a roof on my head, clothes on my back and food on the table,” Mraz said. “I know there are other students who are on the opposite end of the spectrum and they could use that money to help pay for food for the rest of the year.”

Reiner hasn’t applied for either funds, but he has considered it.

Since he is currently staying with his parents, he has free food and rent. But if he decides to move out, he will have to reevaluate his financials.

It would be helpful to have funds from the CARES Act Grant, but it would be more helpful to have his out-of-state fees refunded, he said.

“You don’t need to give away full refunds,” Reiner said. “Give away half, a quarter, just something to show that one: you’re caring; and two: that you’re helping people become financially stable.”


Editor’s note: The organizer of the out-of-state fees petition declined to be interviewed for this article.

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