• Julian Gregorio

RMU gets cool $3.3 mil for corona relief; Pres. Howard cuts refunds but sends some back

Updated: May 8, 2020

Bobby Mo' money mo' probs? School gets $1.7 million earmarked for student relief; refunds partially replaced

Could more money mean more problems?

Notorious Bobby Mo officials might soon find themselves agreeing with the classic Notorious B.I.G. song. The federal government's CARES Act for coronavirus relief is granting billions to Pennsylvania universities, including $3.3 million for Robert Morris, which includes $1.7 million earmarked for student relief, according to a report.

But the funds could earn the school more scrutiny, as students are now getting their room and board refunds — but noticing that part of the refunds have been taken back.

Students were told in March that after they left campus they would get refunds for room and board, but those refunds have been reduced by an unannounced charge that takes some money back. The university says it's not fair to say money was "taken back," but the charge was ordered by President Howard's office.

"They lied," said Tasha Wood, who rushed off campus and back home to Philadelphia when she was asked to move. She expected to be fully compensated for doing so.

"I’m actually really upset," Ms. Wood told The Moon Mythbuster. "They told us we’d get a refund, but truly masked how much it would be. I left so quickly so I could get my full money back and then they took a third of it for themselves."

In a surprise move early Thursday morning, RMU's financial aid office sent an email to some students alerting them that they qualified for "direct financial assistance" which will replace some of the refund reductions, although the relief won't fully cover the funds that were taken back.

"We attempted to release funds in the most fair and equitable way possible," the email says. The funds come from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that President Trump signed into law in late March. Students are awarded between $250 and $750 based on expected financial contribution, a calculation that goes hand in hand with traditional financial aid.

RMU has already been strapped for cash amid declining enrollment, having cut $4-5 million worth of employees — primarily through voluntary separation agreements — last year. Losing half a semester's worth of room, board, and other fees could test its financial stability, even with relief funds.

Students lost jobs and internships when they were told to leave campus but have no sign yet which students will get relief or how much relief each student will get of that $1.7 million, as the school is yet to announce any plans related to the funds.

The university told The Moon Mythbuster on Thursday that it is not fair to describe the refund as having been "taken back."

"Because the cost of room and board is factored into the RMU Grant amount (for students who receive an RMU Grant), when those charges are reduced, a re-calculation of the grant will take place," said vice president of public relations Jonathan Potts. "That keeps the overall percentage of financial need in line with the actual charges."

But Ms. Wood said she struggles to afford RMU as it is, and "really relied" on that refund to afford next year's tuition.

"I love this school, but it’s cruel how they didn’t tell us they would take the money," she said.

In an email, a financial aid officer told Ms. Wood her refund was reduced by $737 because they were told to recalculate the RMU grant based on updated need. The employee said "this was in NO way a decision that we as the Financial Aid Office/Counselors made. This guidance is coming directly from the Office of the President." "If you have any concerns or wish to file a complaint, you can do so by emailing studentlife@rmu.edu," the officer said. The officer added that at the time the school hadn't received the CARES funds yet but potential relief was in the works.

Now that the school has received CARES funds, students who believe they deserve more can appeal using this form and request more money if they need it for a variety of costs, including groceries, housing, utilities, or costs associated with unexpected online classes.

"A limited amount of money has been set aside for successful appeals," the Financial Aid office said.

The move comes at a time when college students across the country are suing their universities over allegedly insufficient refunds, but many schools don't have much money to give, even with the CARES relief.

An email President Howard sent all students about refunds

An email President Howard sent all students on March 16 says students departing that day through March 22 would get a "pro-rated credit of 37%," and those who left the following week would get 31% back. President Howard signed his name at the bottom of the email.

A CARES Act FAQ page has been added to the school website. Until early Thursday morning, RMU's coronavirus page did not mention refunds, refund reductions, or reduction relief, but it did and still does link to a "Student Emergency Fund" that allows people to donate money for struggling students.

Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president for research at Savingforcollege.com, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that some Pennsylvania schools are distributing the funds equally, while some are focusing on students with the most need. Using 2020 USNews enrollment numbers, if RMU's earmarked student funds were equally divided among undergrads, each student would get about $424.

"Other colleges are requiring a simple application, so that they can target the money to the students with the greatest need. Some are using a hybrid approach," Mr. Kantrowitz told the Post-Gazette.

For Ms. Wood's part, she got $500 back.

"Still feel blindsided by the school," she said. "So I'm still short about $250, but I'm very grateful," she said. She emphasized that she is thankful for the Financial Aid office's help, as they were helpful and answered all of her questions.

UPDATE: The original version of this story referenced RMU's employee restructuring as having cut "faculty," but this was an incorrect wording. In fact, the school cut some staff positions, and mostly reduced such employees through voluntary separation agreements. The story has been updated to reflect the more accurate wording.

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