New Decade, New Virus, More Student Debt: An Ordinary Story of a Student’s Financial Stress

By: Mili Chizhik  |  April 22, 2020

By Mili Chizhik, Staff Writer

After my last class on March 4, I ran to visit my sister on the Upper West Side. Everyone in Manhattan was already on edge as the news of the first few cases of COVID-19 surfaced. As I stood on the B train, everyone looked warily at each other while the prerecorded message “please remember to use hand sanitizer and wash your hands” played on a continuous loop. I, like many, wasn’t expecting the outbreak to explode into a full-blown global health crisis.

I was already at my sister’s place when my phone started to receive dozens of messages saying that school was closed until after Purim. My first reaction was a sigh of relief that I would have another few days to prepare for my exams and assignments. Within the next hour, I was already on an express train going home, feeling excited for a long weekend break before the continuation of my very stressful midterm season. The last thing I expected was that the night before had been the last time I lived in the dorms. 

Flashforward to March 11, 2020. The entire student body learned that all classes until after Passover will be held virtually. By that time many students, in-towners and out-of-towners, already went home with the expectation of returning after Passover, thus leaving most of their belongings in their dorms. Within the next few days, my resident advisor called me asking whether I will be returning to campus, and it was then I understood that no one would return to campus until the Fall semester, at best. The next day, I moved out of my dorm room and officially moved home. 

At just 16 years old, I decided to attend Stern College for Women as an early admissions student. I, like many students, am required to take out student loans to cover the full cost of tuition, room, and meal plan. I vividly remember the time I sat on my bed with tears in my eyes while finishing the entrance counseling course that laid out the number of years it will take for me to pay off all my college student loan debt. As I signed off for these loans, only two thoughts calmed me down. First, without these loans, I would be unable to attend college. Second, millions of students were taking out loans as well, so I was not alone in this frightening endeavor. 

Throughout my four semesters of college, I have studied extremely hard and spent many hours on each assignment, so that by the time I would go to graduate school, I would get as many academic scholarships as possible. I also took up six different jobs throughout college, one of which was a peer tutoring position in Stern, to try and save money for the future. Despite all my efforts, the thought of my debt constantly looms over my head and stresses me beyond belief. 

Once I moved out of the dorm on March 16, with more than half of the semester left, I realized that my loans were going to waste. In 10 years from now, I will still be paying off my loans for my unfinished meal card balance and the 2.5 months that I didn’t live in the dorms. After this, I couldn’t understand how all that money was being taken away without any refunding. 

After sharing my thoughts on the situation with many of my fellow students, I realized that my story is not unique, and I am quite ordinary. In fact, I belong to a large group of students who are now stressed not only from the current health crisis and adapting to online learning but also their financial situation. One Stern sophomore shared her frustrations with me, stating, “Now I’m paying for a room I don’t live in while living at home, and I’m paying for food I don’t eat, in addition to also paying a lot of money for food at home.” Another Stern student, a senior, messaged me, saying, “The school will probably not be needing our deposits to pay for food, service, employees, etc. now that school will not be resuming. I know that these are unchartered times for all of us and that behind the scenes, things may be far more complex. However, on a personal note, having to leave NYC and YU also meant leaving my 3 jobs, two of which are on-campus work-study positions. This means that I will be graduating with a far more uncertain future financially now that I will not be able to continue to earn and save money for next year. I am confident that a refund from the school would provide huge financial relief for other students as well. I hope that YU does the right thing and returns whatever money it can.”

After receiving so many messages from students on both campuses, I no longer felt alone and knew that I was in the same stressful financial situation as many of my fellow students in YU. The YU administration has been accommodating for many issues during this challenging time and continues to try to help students and faculty have a smooth transition to virtual learning. Although, the transition has been difficult for many students because they are worrying about their finances. One out-of-town student told me, “I understand that this is something YU has never dealt with, and I understand that they are being bombarded by angry parents, fearful students, and frustrated faculty, and that is completely understandable, and to a point, is acceptable, but they have had a lot of time to review and deal with the situation. Sadly, I am not fortunate enough to have any family financial contribution for anything and must maintain three jobs just to stay in New York and I am now unable to work those three jobs due to the current situation. I already pay so much for tuition and I not only desire to get the proper refund, but expect it. 

“They called every student who could not go home and asked them to leave campus. If they had nowhere to go, they would find them a place to stay but they were insistent for students to not stay on campus. Therefore, only a minority of female students remained on campus and all the residence halls remained open for them.”

I am not trying to deny that YU is in a vulnerable economic state, like many other institutions, but it has been at least six weeks since YU asked students to leave campus, thus leaving the residence halls essentially vacant and significant meal plan balances unused. Many students demand a proper refund, which includes everyone’s remaining meal plan balance and the cost of living on campus for the months of March, April, and May. 

For example, the cost of Brookdale Residence Hall for the Spring 2020 semester was $4,500 starting from January 21st to May 22nd  (a duration of 123 days). So, a refund of March, April, and May (80 days starting from March 4th) and a refund of just April and May (46 days starting from April 7th) would be $2926.83 and $1682.93, respectively. According to these calculations, keeping all the residence halls open in March and the beginning of April cost each student $1243.90. This is a separate cost from the balances on caf cards. 

We aren’t talking about losing pennies. We are talking about each student losing thousands of dollars that was supposed to go towards their rooms and food. Blaming and pointing fingers is not my intention, but rather spreading awareness of the plight of countless students in YU. During this difficult time, we must all stand together and support each other. The best way to do this is to be transparent and firm about our situation. Many have emailed the administration regarding refunds, but the school has not yet addressed it, leaving many worried. Until the administration addresses this major issue, students and their families will have to worry about adjusting to this new life and health crisis as well as their wasted money.