Emma Hoarty / Sun File Photo

Almost two months after students were asked to move out, housing and dining rebates are being delivered.

May 7, 2020

Cornell Promised Housing and Dining Rebates. Here’s How They Were Distributed.

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More than a month after Cornell promised housing and dining rebates, these payments have landed in students’ April bursar statements — but only after they opted into some of them.

The University automatically refunded on-campus residents a portion of their semester housing fees after the early move-out, but required students to request a meal plan credit. This extra step left some students longing for more clarity, while others wished the refunds arrived sooner during a financially challenging time.

Cornell gave students four days — between April 8 and April 12 — to opt into the dining credit, asking them to manually enter the request so the University avoids inadvertently deactivating the meal plans of those who remain in Ithaca. These plans cost students anywhere from $2,515 to $3,659 per semester.

Jack Sillin ’22 said he found the opt-in process manageable, which required a single button press. But he called this step a “needless obstacle,” worrying about students with limited internet access who may be unable to regularly check their email and activate the credit.

“The move from an automatic opt-in to a ‘you have to opt in’ nudges people not to do it,” Sillin said. “That’s a really easy way to drive down turnout in whatever program you’re doing.”

Some students likely forgot to request their meal plan rebate: An April 12 post on the Cornell Reddit page, with 83 upvotes as of Wednesday evening, reminded students they had one day left to request their refund for unused dining swipes. The post garnered comments that ranged from confusion over how to file the rebate to “thanks for this I almost missed it” and “bless you.”

Even with the potential unrequested rebates, distributing these spring semester refunds cost Cornell about $18 million, President Martha E. Pollack said in an April 22 email. Cornell is projecting hundreds of millions in losses, while students needed the financial support.

But credits for other unused services have been more easily returned to students. Unused Big Red Bucks are automatically rolling over to the fall semester. Graduating seniors and other non-returning students will receive a credit for leftover balances.

For the nearly half of undergraduates who lived on campus this semester, those who departed received partial refunds, called “prorated on-campus housing emergency financial assistance.” On-campus undergraduate housing options cost between $8,772 and $11,510 per year.

The University asked students to leave campus by March 29, which was also the date from which Cornell calculated housing refunds. Even though residence halls stood empty well before the end of March, calculating rebates from March 29 was supposed to ensure fairness to all campus residents.

Sillin said this move frustrated him, as he left campus more than two weeks earlier — he packed his car and returned to Maine the Friday classes were suspended. But Sillin added that he was pleased Cornell credited students a “reasonable chunk of change” for the resources they could no longer access, although he wished he was notified how the rebates were calculated.

After Sillin and other students opted in for dining refunds and the University processed the housing credit, they soon received emails that detailed how much refunded money awaited in their bank accounts. However, these messages failed to clarify what portion of paid room and board fees they were credited.

“There was definitely a lot of hand-wavy, ‘We’re just going to give you some money back and hope that’s good,’” Sillin said. “I would’ve appreciated a little bit more of a walkthrough about here’s what we’re doing, here’s how we’re making these decisions, here’s how we’re coming up with these numbers.”

The Parents of Cornell University Students Facebook group was also buzzing with parents exchanging information about whether they received refunds yet and what responses they got from calling the Office of the Bursar.

Students were asked in mid-April emails to set up their direct deposit methods as soon as possible. If a student did not update their portal with information for a bank account soon enough, paper checks can be mailed to them if they contact the Office of the Bursar. Students can also pick up the checks, which will be held in Day Hall, when the University reopens.

Other universities, including Harvard and Columbia, have also provided partial refunds for room and board. None of the Ivy League colleges have offered tuition rebates, and Cornell said it has “no plans” for refunding tuition — spurring lawsuits that claim distance learning cannot replace in-person instruction.

Still, many students positively responded to the room and board credits, one of whom was Justin Shillingford ’20, tweeting on March 13: “Wait Cornell is giving a rebate for housing and dining for those living on campus, kudos to them for that.”

Even though Shillingford departed his off-campus apartment while still paying rent, he said Cornell so far “did a lot of the right things,” compared to some of its peers.

“It’s of course unfortunate that [the rebates] took so long because this is such a volatile situation. People have a lot of financial things they need to figure out, so the sooner the better,” Shillingford said. “I don’t envy the position Cornell is in though, having to figure all of that out very quickly.”