The University of Minnesota is being criticized for coming up short when refunding room and board to students who had to move off campus because of the pandemic.

Most Twin Cities students pay more than $5,000 per semester for a combination of student housing and meal plans, but the U announced this month it would refund students $1,200 for unused housing and dining services. Half of the spring semester, which spans from Jan. 21 to May 13, remained when the university canceled in-person classes at its five campuses on March 11 and encouraged students not to return after spring break.

Students, regents and some state lawmakers have criticized the $1,200 refund amount. They say that colleges should not be pinching pennies at the expense of indebted students who have had their education upended and are missing out on half a semester’s worth of campus services.

“They’re screwing their students out of so much money,” said Mackenzie Griffin, a U sophomore majoring in economics. Her full semester bill for housing and unlimited dining at the U’s 17th Avenue residence hall totals about $5,500. The $1,200 refund covers a little more than a fifth of those costs.

In the past two weeks, U students have circulated petitions with hundreds of signatures asking for a “fair refund” for unused housing and dining services. A separate petition with more than 3,100 signatures goes a step further by calling for a partial tuition refund to reflect the switch from an in-person college education to online courses.

Tuition refunds are not up for discussion at most colleges in Minnesota. But refunds for unused housing and dining services are. And in many cases, Minnesota colleges are refunding students what they are owed.

Students living in residence halls at Minnesota State University, Mankato will receive a refund for half the semester’s room and meal plan costs if they move out by April 5. The University of St. Thomas in St. Paul is providing prorated room and board refunds from the date it announced a switch to online classes on March 16.

Across the Minnesota State colleges and universities system, average room and board costs of about $4,400 per semester are being refunded on a prorated basis starting from a date immediately before or after spring break, said Minnesota State spokesman Doug Anderson.

In an update to students last week, U President Joan Gabel said guidance from internal and external experts and peer institutions determined the U’s $1,200 refund.

She said the university must keep its housing and dining services running for the students who opted to remain in the residence halls. And she added that the university must also account for the fixed costs of paying its maintenance staff, student workers and other front-line employees.

“System senior leaders determined that a credit of $1,200 to student accounts is a reasonable credit for the remainder of each student’s residence hall and meal plan contract, or apartment contract,” Gabel wrote.

University administrators were not made available for comment.

Joseph Roberto, a freshman at the U, said students should not be on the hook for staff costs. His total spring semester bill for housing and dining services is about $5,100. He moved out of his dorm on March 11, just 7½ weeks into the semester.

“I calculated out that it’s about a 23.5% refund when I only used 50% of the services I paid for,” Roberto said. “We shouldn’t be the ones splitting the bill of this misfortune.”

U Regent Darrin Rosha said he was “as surprised as the students themselves” by the refund amount. The Board of Regents, which approves tuition rates, was not consulted, he said.

“Any adjustment based on something as significant as the coronavirus response would certainly seem to be something the board would be informed about … but I was not informed about it,” Rosha said.

U Regent Steve Sviggum, the board’s vice chairman, struck a more sympathetic tone. He said the university is facing a potential $50 million budget hit due to cancellations and the costs of responding to the coronavirus.

Gabel made a “good recommendation” on refunds considering the financial stress facing the U’s five campuses, Sviggum said, while noting “that does not mean that we will not pivot.”

The issue of room and board refunds has also drawn legislative scrutiny.

State Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said Monday he is drafting a bill that would require Minnesota colleges and universities to refund 90% of students’ unused room and board expenses.

While Garofalo acknowledged these institutions may be in a budget bind, he said it’s wrong for them to place the burden on their students.

“It’s my hope that some universities will be responding by adjusting their policies … that maybe we won’t even need to take action on this,” Garofalo said.