In light of recent events surrounding the coronavirus and its impact on business operations, Fourth View created the Return My Semester series to better understand how the virus has disrupted the education sector.
Fourth View sent FOIA requests seeking information surrounding finances and guidance connected to COVID-19 from approximately the time campuses began acting.
Texas A&M responded to our request, which yielded 28 pages of emails, 21 of which were relevant to our inquiry. Summary of highlights include:
- Pages 1-5: Discusses a parent’s concern over tuition reimbursement and others asking for online courses being the same price as tuition. Later up the email chain, John McCall, Associate Vice President for Finance, writes to Jerry Strawser, Executive Vice President and CFO, that, “Obviously these people don’t get that we’re dealing with an unprecedented situation and doing the best we can.”
- Pages 9-10: A dozen universities are colluding with each other to unify and hone their messaging on tuition and mandatory fee refunds. Daniel Layzell, Louisiana State University’s CFO, sent an email to senior leadership at University of Arkansas, Mississippi State University, University of Georgia, University of Mississippi, Auburn University, University of Florida, University of Kentucky, Vanderbilt University, University of Missouri, University of Tennessee and University of Alabama asking about what decisions and guidelines their institutions are making about tuition and mandatory fee refunds, as LSU has been getting inquiries from parents and students and assumed all other institutions were going through similar experiences. Kelli Shomaker, Vice President for Business and Finance/CFO, said Auburn was prorating refunds for dining and housing, but didn’t refund any portion of tuition or student fees (with the reasoning that the campus remains in “full operations”). Jerry Strawser, Texas A&M’s CFO, confirms that they too are prorating refunds for dining, housing, and parking, but not tuition and fees. He continues, “The one concession is that we have waved all ‘distance education’ fees for online courses necessitated by COVID-19.”
- Pages 11-13: Joseph Pettibon II, Vice President for Enrollment & Academic Services, relayed a draft Word document to Strawser about refunds and aids. It’s unclear if the draft is exclusively about tuition or includes all kinds of refunds planned. Another email was sent from Pettibon to President Young about informing communications on refunds, as well as building operations and student study spaces, labs, and dining. The following emails were redacted in their entirety. Carol Fierke, Provost and Executive Vice President, wrote back to Pettibon and a group of senior leadership officials (including Strawser) that they should, “wait until tomorrow with the hope that the System will make a decision. If this is shared internally beyond this group it will get out.” Both Pettibon and Strawser agreed.
- Pages 14-17: In an email titled, “questions for Italy return” Holly Hudson, Executive Director of Education Abroad, asked Fierke, “Are we providing a refund to students for the total cost of their study abroad program fee?” She responded: We are committed to completing the programs in the US so I think that they should pay for the tuition. If we provide housing in College Station for the rest of the semester, I think they should also pay for this.”
- Page 18: In an email titled “Refund Questions,” Valerie Hadley, Assistant Director – Facilities and Dining Administration wrote to Strawser, Senior VP & Chief Marking and Communications Officer Amy Smith, and Associate Vice President for Safety and Security Christopher Meyer, mentioned that she was receiving requests regarding meal plan, housing, and tuition refunds. She said they were working with Chartwells, a higher education dining service, to discuss options. She asks if there’s standard language being used to address refund inquiries. The following email is redacted entirely. The last email, by Strawser, says the fully redacted email of Amy Smith’s is, “fine and gives us enough time to discuss options and devise a solution.”
- Pages 19-21: Student and parent complaints sent to President Young about tuition not being partially refunded
The TPIA request sought communications, including emails, of Chief Financial Officer Jerry Strawser, Vice President of Student Affairs Daniel Pugh, Sr., President Michael Young, and Provost Carol Fierke, that contained the phrase “tuition reimbursement” or “tuition refund” during the months of February and March of this year.