Behind the full refund policy at Sheridan College

The post-secondary institution is so confident students will be satisfied that they're offering a money-back guarantee

Sheridan College students officially begin classes this week, and as in most post-secondary schools, their learning will mostly be done remotely. But Sheridan is so confident students will be satisfied with the experience that they’re offering a full refund until the second week of October.

“If you do not feel satisfied with the quality of your education during the fall 2020 semester, you will be able to withdraw without academic penalty and receive a full refund, including the deposit, until October 9,” reads the statement on the Sheridan College website.

This offer is unique – no other Toronto post-secondary institution advertises anything comparable. So I asked Sheridan’s associate vice president of Enrolment Innovation Jock Phippen about it.

Why did Sheridan come up with this guarantee? 

Jock Phippen: We conducted surveys with students and their families, and from the feedback we discovered people had concerns about the cost of higher education and the value proposition of studies that were fully remote or largely remote. A lot of questions came up about whether we should be discounting tuition. We had to respond and be as proactive as possible. 

What makes you confident that students will be satisfied with the quality of their education? 

JP: Last March, we went from being on campus on a Wednesday to everything going remote on a Thursday. That was a difficult transition for everyone: students, professors, other staff. At the end of the winter term, we knew that with enough lead time we would be able to deliver a very different experience in the fall.

So we tried really hard to communicate that to students and families. It starts with our confidence in the professors and staff. We also knew we had to invest in new educational software for remote delivery. And we needed to boost our Centre for Teaching and Learning, which has great resources and staff who are tasked to help our professors reorganize their curriculum for delivery in this new mode.  

We also recognized that we needed to deliver the wraparound supports and services in a different way: libraries, tutoring, counselling, health services. After a few months of experience, we gathered lots of feedback on how best to do that.  

We also made a commitment in the spring to help new students transition to this environment. For students in the middle of a program, they’d made a commitment – they already had skin in the game, so to speak. But we were concerned about new students. We wanted them to see the value in starting. So we developed a program this summer called Sheridan Starts, a free program for incoming students. It gave them a direct connection with some of our professors. It helped them prepare for the fall, going over what it’s like to enter an online Sheridan classroom environment. Students also did some brush-up academic work so they felt confident starting their programs. 

Finally, we layered in what we called Transition Well webinars to help students with everything from preparing their technological and equipment requirements to other things like study and time management. For the more than 120 first-year courses, we developed modules to teach first-year students how to survive and thrive in this remote environment.  

So in a way, the lockdown in spring helped you prepare for this fall term.

JP: Yes. We saw on social media comments like, “Well this is difficult,” or “I couldn’t do this” or “How do I do a test online?” We also received feedback from professors about gaps, and we had to see how we were going to fill them. Some needed to be filled quickly, and others would take a bit of time.

You mentioned people’s concerns about tuition staying the same, despite remote instruction. So why is it the same?

JP: The cost of delivery doesn’t go down. Around 30 per cent of the enrolment will have some on-campus learning experience, and additional sections had to be added to minimize class sizes. There have been additional costs for new software. The Centre for Teaching and Learning at Sheridan hosted many workshops to help professors with this transition. And staff helped them translate their curriculum to online teaching. With all that, it would have been difficult to reduce tuition. Keep in mind that student fees have been reduced.

If, after all of this, a student isn’t happy with the quality of their education, do they have to explain why they’re withdrawing? 

JP: Well, students won’t be able to just click on a link and withdraw. There will be a process where we ask questions so we can learn about their experience. This could be our ongoing state for a while, so we need to know what’s working and what’s not working.

Sheridan must have some departments – animation, musical theatre, for instance – where in-person instruction is essential. How have you adapted those programs to remote instruction?

JP: One of the starting points for us was the idea that anything that could be effectively delivered remotely would be. But there are certain programs where the learning outcomes and the evaluations can’t be achieved virtually. I’m not clear on all of the courses, but in many cases technology was or is being mailed to students so they can potentially recreate a studio in their home environment. In a few cases, they’ve set up cameras and high-end computers and servers to try to replicate the studio experience.

Interaction with fellow students is crucial to post-secondary school life. How are you filling in that gap for students? 

JP: That’s a big one. In the Learn Well initiative I mentioned, the first thing students encounter is a module about making connections. We recognize that the recipe for success for new students is to make a few friends, connect with a few professors and feel like you’re academically prepared to succeed. To help them make those connections, we made sure things started before classes began. The student union on campus has organized some incredible stuff. Their website has got lots of virtual activities and events, everything from online cooking classes to exercises classes.


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