Personal Finance

Your college closed early because of coronavirus. You might not get your money back

Key Points
  • More than 200 colleges and universities across the U.S. have closed in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. 
  • Families who find their children sent home early from college will want to see a refund for unused room and board. 
  • Some colleges have quickly devised a strategy to pay back parents, while others aren't making it so easy. 

Students at Georgetown College in Kentucky received a one-two punch of bad news this week. Amid the coronavirus, classes would be moved online until at least April and most students would need to vacate their dorms. 

Oh, and they shouldn't expect a refund. 

"[T]he college is not in a financial position to offer any rebates on housing or meal plans for this three-week period (or the remainder of the semester, if we are in a situation that requires us to remain online beyond the next three weeks)," wrote college president Will Jones to students on March 11, according to the email obtained by CNBC.  The college did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

More than 200 colleges and universities across the U.S. have temporarily closed in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, which has so far infected more than 130,000 people and killed more than 5,000 worldwide since January. Boston University, Harvard University, Amherst CollegeTufts and Haverford are among the schools that have sent students packing. 

"If humankind is going to defeat this virus, we must do all we can to avoid becoming its carriers," Wendy Raymond, the president of Haverford, wrote to students this week. 

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Of course, college administrators find themselves in a chaotic situation with little precedent. Still, many families who find their children sent home early from college will want to see a refund for the meals and housing their children won't be able to use. The average annual cost of room and board at public colleges is $11,500 and nearly $13,000 at private schools, according to the College Board. 

"You can't charge for goods and services that you don't provide," said Mark Kantrowitz, a higher education expert. (Since most classes are being moved online, tuition refunds will be less of an issue.)

Many colleges have swiftly devised plans to pay back familiesErin Kramer, associate vice president for news, communication and media at Duke University, said the college is "planning to reimburse residential students for paid but unused housing and dining fees."

Kevin Weinman, the chief financial and administrative officer at Amherst, sent a message to families on March 10, saying they will be refunded for room and board "for the time that students are away." 

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Other colleges aren't making it so easy. 

"Some colleges do not mention refunds," Kantrowitz said. "I would not be surprised if colleges that refuse to provide room and board refunds will face class action lawsuits." 

He recommends all families ask schools to refund any money they might have paid for room and board if their child was asked to vacate their dorms.

Still, Elaine Griffin Rubin, senior contributor and communications specialist at Edvisors, said many colleges' refunds dwindle as students get deeper into the semester.  

"This far into their spring terms, students may not see the type of refunds they would like," Griffin Rubin said.