by Michael Robertson ’20

On the afternoon of March 13th, Dean Walter Snipes sent an email stating: “For those residents who paid the full cost for room and that leave by Wednesday, March 18, 2020, they will receive a prorated credit amount up to 50% of their room cost.”

Seeing those two qualifying phrases, “for those” and “up to 50%,” I found the student body’s collective celebration of this apparent victory imprudent. There was literally no guarantee in that statement of anything, for anyone. To be clear, if the college refunded no students any amount of money, it would still be refunding those who paid the full cost an amount up to 50% of their room cost, namely, 0%. 

I started my investigation at the Resident Life Office (RLO) building, presuming that they would be able to elucidate the precise meaning of his email, before quickly being directed to Business Services. 

Over in Jackson Court, Business Services had begun self-quarantining, but I spoke on the phone to a woman who gave a disquieting prediction. Though she in no way spoke authoritatively on the matter, she believed students would receive a housing refund in proportion to the financial aid that they received elsewhere, such as in tuition. I proposed a hypothetical in which two students each paid the same amount for housing on their billing statement, but one had financial aid elsewhere, and the other didn’t. She assumed that the student with financial aid would receive a smaller refund than the student who didn’t. For example, a student with a 70% financial aid package, who paid 30% of tuition, would only receive 30% of 50%, or 15%, of what they paid for spring semester housing. She said that the Financial Aid office would make that decision, and that they planned to have decided by March 28th, at the latest. 

In hopes of following the trail to some concrete estimation, I asked her to transfer me to Financial Aid. By the account of a Financial Aid staff member, they could not begin refund calculations until RLO gave them a full list of students remaining and departing from campus. Since RLO did not require departing students to check out for another five days, it seemed accurate figures on refunds remained out of reach at the moment. When asked for her opinion, however, she predicted the same fractional refunds that Business Services did.

What could we make of Dean Snipes’s vague reassurance?

After posting the above information in the Davidson College 2019-20 Facebook group to spread the information I’d received, I happened to see Dean of Student Life Byron McCrae at Commons. I spoke with him and summarized the above understanding of the situation. He surprisingly contradicted the confident, yet unofficial, predictions of the two departments and told me he believed only students who had received financial aid on their housing would receive less than half the full cost of it in their refund. In other words, each student would receive half of whatever they paid. He attributed what I had been told to over-caution. The people I spoke with were likely fearful of promising more than could be delivered.

Now, as I write on the night of March 31st, “refunds have been processed,” according to the college’s COVID-19 FAQ page on their website, but online anger has begun to surround the decision not to pay any funds to students under full room and board scholarships. The FAQ page explains, “‘refund’ means money is returned to the source from which it was paid. Aid dollars for room and board will be used for that purpose in the future. Refunds are being provided to students and family who personally paid for room and board.” 

Many students that originally praised the college’s response are now disappointed by it. At first glance, it seems reasonable that only students who paid for room and board would receive money back. Upon further inspection, however, those students not receiving any refund are precisely those determined to be most in need of financial support through housing and meals. Does the college not break the promise it made to students if it ceases to provide them the room and board guaranteed while they attend Davidson because of truly unforeseeable developments? 

As student activist leaders prepare to tackle the above inconsistencies, they face a powerful opponent with little bargaining power of their own. A call script written by Bry Reed ‘20, sent to me by Carlina Green ‘20 on March 31st, encouraged any “student, alum, family member, or community member” to call the numbers of Business Services (704-894-2208), Financial Aid (704-894-2232), and/or the Dean of Students Office (704-894-2225) to “start a conversation on an equitable solution that doesn’t abandon students who chose to leave campus.” About six hours later, just after midnight on April 1st, Student Government leaders responded to the apparently high number of calls to administrative offices in an email. Their email contained a survey for students facing financial difficulties, to promote “discuss[ion] [of their situations] on a case-by-case basis,” because, as the email informed, the school is legally prohibited from issuing refunds from scholarships designated for room and board.

Are legal complications truly so insurmountable that the influx of unused scholarship money cannot be disbursed somehow to students who would have originally received them (at no net loss to the college)? To encourage proactive solutions for affected students, the college should finally note that those who left campus voluntarily trusted the administration’s approach, but without adjustments to the current reimbursement policy, that trust has cost them the basic security of a place to live and food to eat.