There is no special or one-size formula for calculating the appropriate housing and dining credit adjustments for students asked to leave campuses in spring 2020 a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While individual institutions must make decisions based on the unique makeup of their student populations and campus circumstances, there are some helpful resources and guidance for doing the right thing for students in this process, according to Bryan Dickson, NACUBO’s director of student financial services and education programs.
In a discussion with Dickson during the NACUBO webcast on April 3, 2020, titled “Managing Room and Board Credit Adjustments,” Chris Cook, bursar at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, shared how his institution approached this challenge and suggested steps that may be helpful for other campuses. The webcast is available on-demand as part of NACUBO’s free-to-members series Unprecedented Times: Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis.
Get Everyone on the Same Page
First, to make sound decisions that all can agree on and provide a strong united front, ensure all the right people are at the table, said Cook. This group will likely include:
- Administration, such as staff from the chancellor’s, provost’s, and enrollment management offices.
- Personnel from your finance department and dean of students office.
- Housing, dining, financial aid, and student accounts representatives.
While final decisions might rest with administration, your department of finance will help determine adjustment amounts and how and where funding will come from, as well as provide planning scenarios for subsequent sessions and semesters. Housing and dining staff are crucial for providing information helpful to determine adjustment amounts. Still, it is important to recognize their heavy lift in addressing a variety of logistical challenges such as ensuring that students properly vacate dorms and determining what to do with students’ belongings (shipping, storing, scheduling pickups, etc.), Cook said.
Financial aid staff are helpful not only for providing context surrounding adjustments but also with reviewing the process and signing off on any adjustments to financial aid. Ultimately, student accounts staff and bursars will be where the rubber meets road with regard to actually applying credit adjustments to student accounts. “If a refund is due to a student, we are the responsible party to make sure it happens in a timely manner,” said Cook.
Ensure Effective and Timely Communication
The school’s website, social media presence, and email will make up the primary sources of your institution’s communication with students, parents, and other stakeholders at this time. However, how and what you communicate are even more important in order to ensure that everyone understands the protocol, said Cook.
Among these key communication requirements:
- From a single source. Avoid having different departments sending communications. This generates excessive emails for students to sift through. You also don’t want your primary message watered down or confused by multiple messages, said Cook. For Vanderbilt, the single source is the university’s communication department.
- From a high-level authority. Especially at this time, students want to hear official news from a high-level authority, said Cook. This might be the provost or the dean of students. For example, while all messaging is sent via Vanderbilt’s communication department, the messages are coming from a high-level authority.
- Stick to the facts. Don’t embellish your message or provide too much detail. “Make sure the information you provide doesn’t raise more questions. Less is best,” said Cook.
- Easy to understand. Make sure the information you provide is easy to read and understand. It is critical to the use appropriate terminology, said Cook. “This is extremely important when communicating with students and parents.” With regard to housing and dining credits, Cook suggested avoiding the terms rebate, prorate, waiver, or refund. “These terms have specific meanings. Where there are actual credits for housing and dining, you want to stick to more general terms,” said Cook. “At Vanderbilt, we decided that credit adjustment or adjustment, or refundable credit balance are the most accurate terms because, in truth, not all students receive a refund.” For instance, if a student has an outstanding balance, the adjustment would go to reducing the amount a student owes, explained Cook. “In that case, you don’t want to confuse students by suggesting they are receiving a refund.”
Manage the Adjustment Process
The challenge of providing room and board credit adjustments proves the point that proper planning prevents poor performance, suggested Cook. In addition to identifying all the key players at the start, make sure everyone knows exactly what his or her responsibilities are in this process. These players may not be all the same people involved in the initial planning phase. If refunds are due, primary players include the housing and dining staff to assist in creating those files, the financial team to determine the amounts, and the office of student accounts to process the refunds.
Key aspects of managing the adjustment process are:
- Creating a timeline. Identify who is responsible for what and when. “At Vanderbilt, once my team receives confirmation, our intention is to apply credit adjustments and initiate refunds all on the same day,” said Cook.
- Prioritizing turnaround. Accuracy is the primary concern, because you want the appropriate credit balance applied. That said, speed and timeliness are extremely important as well, said Cook. “You need to get any refunds into the hands of students as soon as possible.”
Address Residual Changes
No matter how smoothly you have planned your process to run, there will be lingering challenges to address, said Cook.
These may include:
- Primary point of contact. No doubt numerous questions, comments, and concerns will surface throughout this process. Determine who is responsible to respond to which queries—which will also be the person or department to receive complaints, said Cook. At Vanderbilt, the point of contact is Cook’s office of student accounts. “We are perhaps the most equipped to handle a variety of conversations and respond to these questions,” said Cook.
- Refund distribution concerns. Keeping records accurate is an ongoing challenge even in normal times, said Cook. During this present crisis, incorrect or incomplete records can make refund distributions a real challenge. This includes not having current home addresses on file in the event that you need to mail a paper check. Ideally distributions would occur electronically, but many institutions may lack the direct deposit information for students—in some instances because students don’t receive financial aid and have never needed to provide this information, notes Cook. One lesson from this going forward is to put a process in place to get students to sign up for direct deposit to expedite receiving funds, said Cook.
- Exceptions to the rules. Bear in mind that some students might not be able to leave campus as soon as everyone else. These might include international students and student athletes. You may need to consider exceptions for these students and how you should accommodate them on a case-by-case basis, said Cook.
KARLA HIGNITE, Fort Walton Beach, Fla., is a contributing editor for Business Officer.