Liberty University will offer $1,000 credits to students who decide not to return to campus residence halls due to the coronavirus pandemic, the university announced Friday.
For students returning in the fall, the credit will be available for tuition and room and board costs. Graduating students will be provided a refund for any money left over after the credit is applied to their accounts in late April. Students not returning in the fall are not eligible.
Students will have until today to leave their dorms to qualify for the credit, according to the university’s announcement made online.
The offer could help incentivize some students who remain on campus to return to their hometowns. On Tuesday, a Liberty spokesperson said about 1,900 were back on campus.
Liberty faced a flood of criticism from state and local officials this week after President Jerry Falwell Jr. invited students to return to campus even as most classes moved to an online format in response to the coronavirus threat.
“I think we have a responsibility to our students — who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here — to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board they’ve already paid for and to not interrupt their college life,” Falwell told The News & Advance on Sunday.
During a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam called on Falwell to reconsider his decision to invite students back to campus.
Friday’s announcement makes Liberty the first institution of higher learning in the Lynchburg area to announce specific plans to reimburse students.
Leaders at Randolph College and Sweet Briar College have pledged to offer reimbursements in the future but have not yet released details about the exact size of the refunds.
The University of Lynchburg, meanwhile, has a policy against providing refunds in response to a pandemic but administrators have said they are considering changing that policy.
Robert Lambeth Jr., the president of the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia, said most private institutions in the state are considering offering refunds to students but are taking different approaches.
Some independent colleges and universities, including Liberty, are offering refunds at a flat rate while others are prorating refunds based on the amount of time students spend on campus and the level of financial aid they receive, Lambeth said.
“They're all over the map as to how the amount is calculated,” Lambeth said. “Everybody is making their own decisions.”
Lambeth said several institutions are waiting to see how much assistance they will receive from the federal government as part of a $2 trillion emergency stimulus package. Colleges and universities across the country are expected to receive about $14 billion in total relief.
“Private institutions in particular are taking a huge financial hit from this whole crisis,” he said. “It's very difficult for all colleges, but particularly private colleges that don't get any direct state assistance.”
Liberty, which boasts a nearly $1.6 billion endowment, said in a statement Sunday it was not obligated to offer refunds proportional to the length of time lost due to the pandemic.
Housing costs at Liberty range from $2,300 to $3,750 a semester depending on the residence hall. Students who live on campus must also purchase a dining plan — which generally costs around $2,000 a semester — and pay more than $1,000 in annual fees for campus programs.
It is unclear how many students are eligible for the credit. A Liberty spokesperson did not return a request for comment Friday.
But Liberty spokesperson Scott Lamb did invite media Friday to report on donations raised because of the lack of students on campus. "Our food services are making a BIG donation to local charities," Lamb wrote in an email "Think: food for 15k students was ordered a month ago ... but not so many students now ... so, let's not let it let go to waste."
Senior Calum Best, a member of the student government who publicly called on Liberty to refund students earlier this week, said the university made the correct decision.
"I think it will help out a lot of students who are adversely affected by the coronavirus," Best said. "I was very grateful to see it."
Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.
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