COVID-19 has thrown the 2020-21 school year into a state of uncertainty for students and schools alike. The University of Oregon's latest notice has deepened concern for students and their families.
If students sign up for dorm rooms now, says an Aug. 21 notice, they are on the hook for room and board for the whole year, even if they can never enter a classroom.
At least one Portland family is unhappy with that decision by the university.
"We found that a contract that requires [students] pay full room and board or they don't have a contract seems unfair," says Claire Carnes, a parent of an incoming UO freshman. "I think we're expecting something that would be a little more accommodating."
Over the past several months, colleges all over the country have struggled to balance student safety with the financial incentives to reopen. Some schools, including the University of Portland, plan an entirely remote year.
Most institutions have settled on a mixture of in-person and online classes with the possibility of going to a fully remote schedule if necessary. In Oregon, most of the major colleges and universities have adopted this hybrid model, including the University of Oregon. But UO is offering less flexibility than its competitors.
On Aug. 21, UO gave families whose students would be living in dorms an ultimatum, via a mailed housing contract. They have 10 days to commit to room and board for the entire year. An addendum to the housing contract gives students and their families until Sept. 1 to sign. If they do, their housing contract "will remain in effect regardless of the University's mode of delivery of courses."
Only if UO is forced to clear the campus, including dorms, will families get relief.
"If the university closes the residence halls and requires all students to leave campus for the remainder of the school year, students will not be charged for the canceled portion of the room and meal plan," the contract says. However, it also says that "if the university goes fully remote for all or portions of fall, winter or spring terms, but the university does not close the residence halls, the room and meal charges and contract terms are the same as if classes are delivered in-person, remotely or online."
Room and board prices at the university average about $15,000 a year.
Other colleges in Oregon and around the country have selected a plan that allows students more flexibility.
Portland State and Oregon State universities are allowing students to opt out of living on campus in the fall and reevaluate in the winter quarter. Additionally, OSU made the following statement: "Students who decide to cancel during fall term after moving to campus can complete a cancellation request and will not incur any cancellation fees. Students will be charged only for the days they occupy their room on campus." Even the private Reed College offers more flexibility than UO by allowing students to petition an early cancellation of their housing contracts.
Carnes says public institutions like UO owe it to students to provide more flexibility than private institutions. "I would assume the state would look out for the best interests of their students," she says.
Kay Jarvis, the director of public affairs at UO, says the university is trying to be as flexible as possible—and rejects the assertion that it's less flexible than other universities.
Jarvis noted the deadline for committing to on-campus housing is normally May 1 and has been extended twice. She says UO will make an announcement Aug. 26 about its ability to offer in-person classes this fall.
"Students who already have signed up for on-campus housing have until Sept. 1 to change their minds, file an exemption and be released from their housing contracts at no charge," Jarvis said in a statement, adding that if students do commit to a contract, they may also be able to cancel later, with a financial penalty.
Carnes says her family is disappointed.
"It just sounds like a big financially motivated uncaring situation," Carnes says. "The word my daughter used last night is, she feels betrayed."
Clarification: This story has been updated with additional remarks from the University of Oregon.