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Universities across the state have shifted to online classes, which is not as easy as it sounds. LSU starts today, March 30, 2020. LSU has been shut down a couple of weeks due to the Coronavirus.

Louisiana colleges and universities are refunding at least $24 million to students because the academic year was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, officials said Wednesday.

LSU tops the list, returning $4.4 million.

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is sending back $3.8 million and $3.5 million by Southern University in Baton Rouge.

Others include Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, $3.3 million; Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, $932,095; and the University of New Orleans, $499,816, according to figures compiled by the Louisiana Board of Regents.

Most of the refunds cover charges for housing, which students had to vacate about two months before the scheduled end of the school year. Meal plans are also covered in some of the refunds.

Leaders of LSU and other schools began a sudden move to online classes in March when cases of the virus began skyrocketing in Louisiana.

Colleges and universities later got $147 million from the $2.2 trillion federal rescue bill, including $19 million for LSU.

Those funds were mostly allocated on the basis of how many students were getting Pell grants, which represent those most in need of financial assistance.

Ernie Ballard, a spokesman for LSU, said in an email that the $4.4 million being refunded from the Baton Rouge campus covers both housing and meal charges.

"For the housing and meal plan credits, they were first applied to any outstanding amounts owed to LSU," Ballard said.

"If a refund was due and the student had banking information on file, we direct deposited the refund," he said. 

"Otherwise, a check was issued and mailed to their local mailing address."

The refunds by Southern were 57% for housing and the rest for meals, with the money returned by direct deposit in student bank accounts, according to a spokeswoman for the school.

What schools owe students is a sensitive topic nationally.

College leaders are caught between balancing complaints that students paid for services that were not delivered because of the pandemic at the same time schools face a financial squeeze because of the upheaval.

Jim Henderson, president of the system that oversees the University of New Orleans and other schools, said refunds among colleges in the University of Louisiana System represent sort of a group policy.

"It was more of a collective decision for us," Henderson said. "We all agreed we needed to do something."

He said housing charges made up the bulk of the refunds among his schools, which are used by about 92,000 students.

The list of refunds includes Grambling State University, $2.8 million; Louisiana Tech University, $1.2 million; McNeese State University, $643,439; Northwestern State University, $1.3 million and the University of Louisiana at Monroe, $981,657.

Southern University in New Orleans refunded $334,000, according to regents' figures.

Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed, in response to a question in a House committee, cited the refunds last week as sort of a sign of good faith by college leaders, as well as some fee cuts during summer school, as they seek to retain fee authority.

A proposal to do just that – House Bill 26 – is expected to be approved this week by the state House of Representatives.

The plan, by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerome "Zee" Zeringue, R-Houma, would extend the ability of college leaders to boost fees through the end of the 2020-21 academic year.

That authority is set  to expire on June 30.

College leaders say fees are especially valuable amid static or declining state aid for colleges.

Critics call the fees backdoor tuition hikes.

"It gives us the autonomy we need to react to the market," Henderson said of the fee-raising authority. "It gives us another tool to meet the needs of students."

During the regular session, the House approved legislation to extend the authority for three years, not one.

That bill died in the state Senate amid concerns about the ability of families to pay higher fees during the pandemic.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.