May 13, 2010, 08:55

by Lon Woodbury

I just heard the story of a program that had a student enrolled only a couple of days before expelling him, and the program refused to refund the $12,000 the parents had paid up front. This disturbs me. I've heard of similar situations several times over the years, and despite the justifications I've heard for a no refund policy, it still disturbs me.

Perhaps I'm too much of the old school, but my basic belief is that a school/program deserves to be paid well for quality services rendered, but no more! In this case I could perhaps accept something like one month minimum, or a nonrefundable admissions fee if explained up front, but this story hints at something that might be more questionable.

I have had several clients with a child who really needed a highly structured therapeutic/ emotional growth school, but the parents had first tried a mainstream school that had a good reputation for discipline. In these schools, the parents had been required to pay for a year or half year tuition up front, justified by the school as necessary to reserve a bed or to encourage the parents to solidly support the school. Unfortunately, these students acted out with the same behaviors they had back home and shortly were expelled. The parents were not only out several thousand dollars for nothing, but again had to search for a school for their child who had just had another failure. As I learned about the child's behavior after the fact, to me it should have been easily predictable the child would probably be expelled and the school should have rejected the child in the first place. When money like this is involved, it is very questionable for a school to take the attitude "Let's give him/her a chance." In any school, but especially emotional growth/therapeutic schools and programs, it is the responsibility for the schools and programs to be as certain of the appropriateness of the child as possible. If failure is likely, it is the responsibility of the school/program to encourage the parents to find a more appropriate place.

Of course it depends on a lot of factors. Factors that might color my basic belief are:

  • If the school or program required or encouraged the parents to pay a lump sum in advance, perhaps for a discount

  • If the parents withdrew the child, or if he/she were expelled (who makes the termination decision can be very important)

  • If the parents by their actions support the school including insisting their child finish the program, OR: if the parents allow the child to manipulate them by things like letting them know they are welcome back home no matter what

  • If the school or program spells out in advance exactly what their refund policy is

  • If the enrollment was questionable in the first place to where they probably should have rejected the child

For example, if the parents were assured at enrollment their child was a good fit for the school, were honest and upfront about the behaviors of their child causing the enrollment decision, support the school in ways the school asked them to, and the school didn't have a written policy for refunds and/or the school expelled the child for behaviors that are essentially what caused the child to be enrolled in the first place, then it is very questionable for the school/program to withhold any money in excess of paying for the time the child was there.

However, on the other hand, if the parents pushed the enrollment despite reluctance by the school, and once their child was enrolled, questioned the methods of the school or pushed for special program accommodations, let the child know he/she would be welcome back home if the placement didn't work out and otherwise were not supportive of the program, and/or removed the child before completing the program, then the school would have a stronger argument for no refund.

The best way to avoid possible conflict and ethical questions is for the school to spell out in writing their refund policy in advance in very clear terms with as many specifics as possible. That way the parent would know in advance if there might be a financial cost for doing something like premature withdrawal of their child, and could help the parents make an informed decision to even enroll in the first place. Forearmed, they at least could avoid a potential nasty surprise.

It is also important for the parents to insist before enrollment that the refund policy be fully explained. This simple step could help avoid later disappointment, frustration or a feeling of being cheated. It could also help the school avoid angry parents being loudly negative about the school to their friends. And, in the age of the internet, could avoid some of the nasty viral stories that seem to be all over the Net.

© Copyright 2012 by Woodbury Reports, Inc.