The Kansas House budget committee voted to support an amendment in the state’s higher education budget that will require colleges and universities to provide tuition rebates to students who switched to online courses during the pandemic.
The amendment will require six state universities — Wichita State University, Fort Hays State University, Kansas State University, Emporia State University, Pittsburg State University, and The University of Kansas — to provide students with a 100 percent tuition rebate for online classes and a 50 percent tuition refund for days cut from the academic calendar due to COVID.
The amendment introduced by Representative Sean Tarwater, a Stillwell Republican, has faced opposition from House members who have pointed out that there is still no estimate of what compliance would cost these six universities.
A staunch advocate of in-person classes, Tarwater said, “I’ve talked to many parents who tell me that their kids aren’t learning, that several of them watch their kids cheat on their final exams because they take it together.”
Tarwater has also objected to colleges granting students a longer holiday break. The lawmaker said he had the full support of the state Board of Regents, which thinks the tuition refund is a good idea and has pledged to develop a strategy to make it happen.
What Does This Mean for Colleges?
Similar to educational institutions across the country, life at Kansas colleges came to a standstill last March as the coronavirus began to spread. Since then, they have adjusted their schedules with a mix of online and in-person classes depending on the spread of infection in the state.
Many colleges have used federal relief aid to refund students some or all of their fees for tuition, room, and board. Students, too, have been vocal in demanding refunds.
However, any massive change in tuition refund policy would impact thousands of students and, although the exact costs are not known, it would certainly involve millions of dollars, drying up college coffers.
Reaction to Amendment
Lawmakers are divided in their opinion on the amendment. Some went on to describe the difficulties their children have experienced during online classes, arguing that schools were not doing enough to support the virtual learning experience.
The higher education budget must be approved as part of the state’s overall budget. It needs the approval of the full House as well as the state senate. Lawmakers are still unclear about the financial impact of this amendment without knowing how much the state will receive in federal stimulus spending.
Since the repercussions of the amendment are still unknown, some lawmakers believe the move is “reckless.” Lenexa Democrat Brandon Woodard said, “We literally just made a decision to wreck the budgets of our universities without allowing them to testify.”
House Appropriations cmte approve the Higher Education Budget cmte recommendations, but amended it to require Universities to refund tuition for virtual learning or shortened terms. I voted NO. This body is acts like majority shareholders and not consulting w/stakeholders. #ksleg
— Brandon Woodard (@Woodard4Kansas) February 17, 2021
Although the amendment is “a discussion starter” at this stage, and has a long way to go before it becomes law, Representative Susan Humphries believes the proposal holds regents’ and universities’ “feet to the fires so they know we’re serious about the money.”