For over a week now, I’ve been social distancing in my apartment and stuck in an endless cycle of Zoom meetings. I get email after email from my university with updates on their response to coronavirus, and how it’s impacting everything from campus security to commencement. As I get those emails one thing keeps coming to mind: this isn’t what I signed up for, and it certainly isn’t what I paid for.

In just a handful of days, classes moved online and campus was essentially shut down, which meant that the $34,050 I paid my university in tuition and an assortment of student fees for the spring semester was gone without me having gotten my money’s worth.

Don’t we deserve to get our money back?

It seems many colleges are hoping to avoid refunding large amounts of money out of fear about how it’ll impact the budget.

“Refunds are a sticky business since they are definitely not in the budget. Any significant refunding will create a budget hole,” W. Joseph King, president of Lyon College and co-author of How to Run a College told Inside Higher Ed. “Most institutions have policies about refunds (or no refunds) if a student withdraws. Few (if any) have closure policies.”

They’re trying to ease the rough transition in other ways. Smith, Duke, and other colleges have agreed to pro-rate room and board. Northeastern University will continue to pay work-study students even though they can’t work.

But students are looking for more, particularly first-generation students who may be facing job, housing, and healthcare losses when their colleges close. The money lost on a curtailed semester is another burden to add to the load, and because of that, the calls for tuition and housing refunds are only getting louder.

Some colleges, like NYU, Harvard, and Tufts have flat out refused to give out any tuition refunds on the basis that classes are moving online, not being canceled. But where does that leave students in studio and lab classes that don’t translate well over Zoom, or classes where professors are simply struggling to make the transition? That’s hard for anyone — now add the obstacles many first-gen and low-income students also have to navigate like not having access to reliable internet or computer.

A refund for half, or even a quarter, of the cost of attendance could go toward necessary living expenses and could mean the difference between a first-generation student making through this ordeal.

‘It’s the least universities can do’

I spoke to Sucdi Ahmed, a junior at Willamette University, about this issue. Like most students, Sucdi’s classes have moved online, but her campus is still open to students like her who need a place to stay. Willamette is still providing students meals as well, but even with those essentials taken care of, Sucdi said she knows there’s more colleges can and should be doing to ease the financial burden this pandemic is causing on first-generation students.

We talked about the likelihood either of us would get prorated tuitions, and the uncertainty that clouds this unprecedented time.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ZO: How has your university’s response to coronavirus helped or hurt you as a first-generation student?

SA: Going online has helped me along with having the options to stay on campus or leave. They also were planning on having our cafeteria be closed during spring break but because of the outbreak they opened it up and allowed those on meal plans to have free meals. However, our breakfast was minimal on our first day which was disappointing. One thing that has hurt me is that the response of transitioning online was not equitable at all, from struggling professors trying to figure out Zoom to having our coursework stay the exact same as before. It is hard to constantly be using your laptop for class meetings and homework. Luckily I have compassionate professors but I can’t say the same for my peers.

Ultimately, I wish universities were responding in a way that compassion and empathy were at the center of every discussion. Suddenly people don’t have jobs, are stuck on campus, and our international students are struggling to decide between staying on campus or going back home.

ZO: Do you think students should be getting refunds?

SA: Colleges should refund students because this is not what we paid for. I would want a refund of a portion of my tuition with a guarantee it goes directly back to students and doesn’t penalize students at all in relation to paying back scholarships or student loan interests. We’ve already lost enough. I think it’s the least universities can do to pay students back while ensuring university employees like staff, faculty, student workers are also being paid.

ZO: How does being a first-generation student complicate this situation?

SA: First-generation students feel a multitude of stress, especially those from immigrant families. I can only speak for myself, but I think the pressures from family, society, and even yourself can send anyone into a mindset of hopelessness within academia.

Questions like, “How can I focus on school when I need to take care of my family?” and “How will I be able to support myself without a job during this pandemic?” are all over social media. My scholarship program sent out a letter saying a majority of their junior and senior scholars feel unmotivated in their studies. I can only imagine how everyone feels now.

ZO: What do you think are the odds colleges actually give out tuition refunds?

SA: The odds are really low for a refund. I’m not expecting it.

ZO: If not a refund, what would be helpful right now?

SA: Meal points need to roll over at least to next year and those who’re leaving the school should get cash refunds for those points. But other than that, I don’t know what would be helpful if there’s no refund because anything helpful would have monetary value and at that point give us all a refund.

Good reads:

  • “US colleges scrambled to react to the coronavirus pandemic. Now their very existence is in jeopardy,” by Chris Quintana for USA Today
  • “College Students Face Loneliness While Stuck On Deserted Campuses,” by Kirk Carapezza for WGBH
  • “Student Journalists Are Still Reporting on Coronavirus After Schools Shut Down,” by Rainesford Stauffer for Teen Vogue

Thanks for reading,


If you have thoughts on how coronavirus is impacting first-generation college students and would like to talk please email me at

A journalist and first-generation college student originally from Yonkers, N.Y., Zipporah is in her last year at Northeastern University. She has reported for The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Higher Education,...