‘New’ May Term refund policy postponed for further research

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by Kate Hayden

A payment proposal for May Term 2015 travel abroad courses has been postponed after faculty members voiced concerns this spring. 

The proposed policy, in which students wouldn’t be reimbursed any surplus of their course payment that wasn’t used, was an effort to cut down on the amount of money students are thought to borrow, according to Academic Dean Steven Griffith. 

“Our current practice, the way we’ve been doing it, essentially over charges students and then refunds them the amount of money that’s not used. I think the goal moving forward will be to say, ‘can’t we be more precise in terms of sticker price with regards to the actual cost of the program?”‘ Griffith said. 

Discussions began a year ago under Griffith and former President John Byrd for the policy to be in practice for May Term 2014. But when the topic came up last fall, Griffith said an extended postponement was put in place for further study on the issue. 

Further Study Needed

Policy changes were first discussed in 2007 or 2008 under President Byrd, who considered implementing the proposal for 2014. President Jay Simmons said he was concerned to hear upon his arrival that the institution refunds between $30-40,000 a year to students on May Term travel courses. 

“I fear that a lot of our students may be borrowing money to go on study abroad courses,” President Simmons said. “[If] the student’s taking out a student loan for twenty years to borrow a thousand dollars or three thousand dollars or whatever to go on a study abroad course, I’d rather say to that students ‘let’s try to reduce the upfront cost so that you’re not borrowing that money and then paying it back over twenty years.'”

President Simmons said the main reason the new policy was postponed is a lack of data on the current policy’s effectiveness. 

“My guess is most students probably are not taking that refund and using it to pay down that debt, and I’m making a lot of suppositions when I say that. I’m assuming a lot of things. That’s why I want us to take the time, look at the numbers, and see if we can’t budget a little more closely,” President Simmons said. 

It is unclear whether any student feedback was consulted in discussions. Student body president Alex Severn, junior, said in a message that he did not believe any SGA members have been involved or consulted in discussions of a possible policy change. 

“We [Severn and vice president Jessica Shultes] think it is important that student are a part of this discussion as it will not only impact faculty and staff but will also affect students,” Severn wrote. 

Political science professor John Epperson fears that ridding refunds altogether from May Term policy will hurt students in the long run. 

“Some might call it theft,” Epperson said. “It’s taking money that’s student’s money, not the college. If I end up with a trip and each student is owed five dollars, that’s a minimal amount of money. But it I owe students $300 more, we ought to get that back. It’s their money.”

“It would be unfortunate if students or faculty or anyone thought the administration was stealing money from them,” Griffith said. “What we didn’t want to do was implement a policy and not have people aware of it going on. That was part of the issue last year. We didn’t want to be in a position of having faculty members promise students refunds and then not be able to follow through on it.”

When asked where a remaining surplus paid by students would go, Griffith said it’d be a part of the college ‘general fund.’

“It wouldn’t go anywhere specifically,” Griffith said. 

The Faculty Agreement

After fall discussions concluded May Term 2014 would be too early for the proposal to be put in practice, consideration for 2015 began. 

“It was my understanding that we would postpone the implementation to 2015,” Griffith said. 

With that understanding, Griffith circulated a ‘faculty agreement’ document to 2015 May Term leaders that was intended to keep expectations by the Study Abroad Committee and college in one place, according to Griffith. 

The document addressed the ‘new’ policy by requiring leaders agree that “any balance remaining in a travel course’s general ledger account at the end of the experience will not be returned on a per capita basis to participants in the course”.

Professor Epperson is among faculty members who refuse to sign the agreement. 

“I object to the agreement for a couple of reasons. It’s an agreement to do my job. I do my job everday,” Epperson said. “There’s some things I object to and there’s some things I don’t know what they mean.”

Epperson said part of the agreement’s problem was vague references to the student handbook. 

“Does that mean I have to enforce an alcohol policy? And if so how do I enforce an alcohol policy in a country where in the case of Great Britain the drinking age is 18? I’m not going to do that. So does that make me liable?” Epperson asked. 

Griffith said with the postponement of the payment proposal, the faculty agreement will also be discussed. 

“Everything on that agreement will be discussed and will come to some agreement so we both share the same expectations,” Griffith said. 

President Simmons is hopeful extra time will clear lingering questions.

“Can we do this in a way that’s more transparent and hopefully not putting students in debt if that is in fact what’s going on?” President Simmons said. “We just need to look at some numbers and make sure what we’re doing makes sense for all of us.”