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THE FINE PRINT

All of his UMass classes are online. So why did one cost $1,425 extra?

Liam Ryan was charged $1,425 extra for an online course at UMass Amherst in what turned out to be a big misunderstanding.
Liam Ryan was charged $1,425 extra for an online course at UMass Amherst in what turned out to be a big misunderstanding.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Last spring, Liam Ryan, a business major at UMass Amherst, signed up for classes ranging from accounting to marketing, all to be taught online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ryan also tried to register for a required writing class, but those classes were full.

When he finally found a writing class with an opening, in late August, a relieved Ryan quickly enrolled (all done online, of course), paying little attention to one sentence in an e-mail on how to register saying the class required “an additional fee not covered by tuition.”

Now in his third year, Ryan is accustomed to paying fees in addition to tuition, including, for the current semester, $124 for “student activities” and $200 for “technology.”

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But the fee for the writing class, when the bill arrived three weeks after classes had begun, turned out to be considerably higher: $1,425, boosting his total tuition bill by 18 percent, even though he was taking no more than the usual number of classes for a full-time student (five), and even though all of them were being taught in the same way (online).

When he first signed up for the class, Ryan said, he had assumed the fee would a small fraction of what it turned out to be.

“It was just one more class taught the same way as the others,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be a big deal.”

“But I guess I should have asked,” said Ryan, 20, of Longmeadow, who is now living off campus in Amherst.

Well, yes, that would have helped. But shouldn’t the university have been more explicit?

Ryan and various administrators traded a dozen e-mails on Aug. 24 and 25, according to copies of the exchanges Ryan shared with me. The tone of the administrators was consistently friendly and helpful as they guided Ryan through a couple of bureaucratic hoops and into the class he needed.

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But no one told him it would cost $1,425 extra, even while twice referencing extra, unspecified costs.

By contrast, one administrator was very specific about another fee connected to this same online writing class: a nonrefundable registration fee of $47.

Why specify $47 to register but not $1,425 to take the class?

And why was UMass Amherst charging so much extra for one of it classes in the first place?

Michael Ryan, Liam’s father, questioned how UMass Amherst could “justify such an upcharge" when the writing class seemed to have no special features, compared to Liam’s other classes.

“It strikes me as extremely unfair to be assessed such a fee when almost all of the university’s offerings are being provided to students remotely,” Michael Ryan, an attorney, wrote to the university bursar’s office.

Michael Ryan said he tried to plead his case at the bursar’s office, but the person he spoke with on the phone, whom he described as “very friendly and polite,” was unyielding on the $1,425 charge.

“I asked if there was any appeal process, but was told there wasn’t,” he said. “It’s maddening to think I have to pay an extra $1,425. It’s an online class. What’s the big deal?”

I reached out to Ed Blaguszewski, a top UMass Amherst administrator. After looking into the matter, Blaguszewski said the university has offered the Ryan family a refund, saying Liam should have been told he could take the writing class in the spring without extra charge.

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The reason for the extra charge stems from the fact the university has for many years run a special online-only program geared to working adults who want to finish their degrees without returning to campus.

That program, called University Without Walls, this fall offered the same writing class as the regular university. When Liam happened upon the class offered by University Without Walls, he thought he had solved his problem.

Blaguszewski said state law requires University Without Walls, designed to support nontraditional students, to be self-supporting, which means no state subsidy. That accounts for the $1,425 charge.

“For many years, a small number of undergraduates have chosen to enroll in a University Without Walls course at an additional cost, since they provide more flexibility and convenience,” he said.

So it was all a big misunderstanding, one that UMass Amherst seemed unable to resolve in the Ryan family’s favor until it reached fairly high in the chain of command.

Assumptions get us in trouble, especially in these uncertain times. It’s best to ask upfront about costs. And it’s best for a university to provide its costs upfront, even when not asked, especially when dealing with 20-year-olds.

A lesson learned, I hope.

Compensation for the scams

Did you or a family member get scammed in recent years when promised prizes, loans, jobs, discounted products, or other financial rewards in exchange for money upfront?

Or by someone who pretended to be a family member in need of cash, or law enforcement officers demanding payment?

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A lot of people did. And now some of them are getting compensated for their losses from Western Union, which, according to the Federal Trade Commission, “admitted to aiding and abetting wire fraud” in connection with the scams.

As a result of its admission, Western Union has agreed to pay $586 million, the FTC says.

I was alerted to the settlement by a reader who said she was recently stunned to receive a $1,550 check as compensation for when her now-late mother got scammed six years ago by someone posing as a distressed family member pleading for cash.

The reader said she reported the scam to local police at the time, not really expecting anything. But federal investigators apparently found that report and used it as the basis for the compensation check that arrived last month.

I love it when the law and government work well together to help people.

For more information, check the FTC website at https://www.ftc.gov/enforcement/cases-proceedings/refunds/western-union-settlement-faqs.


Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.