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Observer Editorial: A call for unprecedented action in unprecedented circumstances

| Friday, April 3, 2020

Over the past three weeks, students at Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross have waited patiently for answers from their respective institutions as to how things will progress over the next few months. With each passing day, a new question seems to be answered.

What will happen to classes? Zoom. Will Notre Dame move to a pass/no credit grading system? Yes. When will commencement take place? Memorial Day 2021 for Notre Dame students, and the fall of 2020 for Holy Cross and Saint Mary’s students.

We are incredibly thankful for all those working to find solutions to the unique and unprecedented problems we are currently facing and answer our growing list of questions. Yet some vitally important questions remain unanswered. Specifically, how will Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross handle the tuition and room and board payments already made by students in light of the current economic situation and changes in our academic experience?

Both Notre Dame and Holy Cross have answered this question, in part with the announcement that they would prorate room and board charges for the spring semester. Yesterday, Notre Dame provided additional details on the prorating of room and board. The University’s transparency and fairness in handling the matter are commendable.

As Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross students wait for the specific details regarding the handling of room and board and we all wait for the answers to other questions, we urge our respective academic institutions to make every effort on their part to fairly prorate students for room and board. We also ask them to strongly consider other measures they can take in the current situation, such as prorating spring semester tuition, not increasing the cost of tuition for the 2020-21 school year and offering additional and flexible financial aid for those in need.

It’s important to note that Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross are much smaller institutions with comparatively shallower endowments and may not be equipped to make the same returns as Notre Dame. However, both colleges should make every possible effort to meet the financial needs of their students to the extent that they are economically capable.

Many students and their families are now dealing with immense financial burdens and face an uncertain future as unemployment has skyrocketed and the economy has sharply declined. The unforeseen additional costs of the semester, such as additional plane tickets and the purchase of necessary items left behind in dorm rooms, are yet another strain on those already struggling.

Graduating seniors, and juniors soon after, will face a dismal job market and downtrodden economy as they begin their way towards financial independence. Many underclassmen are learning their competitive internship offers are being rescinded, and even seniors who had jobs after graduation are learning they may now be unemployed. The dire financial circumstances which many in our community find themselves facing warrant the consideration and attention of our institutions.

At the same time, students are not getting what they paid for. This is not only true in terms of room and board, as residence halls sit empty and meal plans go unused, but it is also the case in terms of tuition. Students paid tuition with the full expectation of receiving in-person classes, uninhibited access to campus resources, the opportunity to connect face-to-face with professors and a spot within a robust, vibrant and physically-present academic community — none of which they can receive in the present situation.

We are immensely grateful for the tireless efforts of professors and faculty to adapt their courses and teaching methods for the screen. Their work, along with modern technology, provides us with a way to continue our classes and learning. We are additionally thankful for the efforts made by our institutions to provide virtual resources in place of those normally available on campus. We strongly believe that all faculty and staff should continue to receive the compensation and support due to them.

Nevertheless, online classes cannot be considered equivalent to in-person classes, the loss of physical, person-to-person interaction is significant. This loss, in addition to the limitation of resources normally available on campus, means students are not receiving what they expected when they paid tuition. It is with this in mind that we urge our institutions to seriously consider the best measures to take in order to alleviate the financial burden of a semester.

As University President Fr. John Jenkins noted in his recent address to the Notre Dame community, the hardships brought about by the current economic downturn will bear upon the University and higher education at large. However, Notre Dame — with its $11 billion endowment — Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross find themselves in a much different position than students and their families.

This period has been difficult for all involved. We are, of course, thankful for the nonstop work of faculty and staff in recent weeks and the efforts made thus far. However, we want to use the present moment to implore our three institutions to provide fair and adequate refunds for room and board and to do everything they can to address the current financial situation in which students and their families find themselves.

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