Chris Lewandowski wasn't sure he wanted to live in student housing next school year, so the Northern Illinois University freshman did some due diligence.
His question: If he signed the online housing contract for 2013-14 but later changed his mind, could he back out?
"They told me there was no penalty if I signed up for the dorms and canceled by May 1," he said. "I felt no qualms about signing up."
Returning to the dorms was never Lewandowski's first choice. As a music major, he needs his own room to play guitar. The dorms only offered double occupancy rooms.
As luck would have it, he found an off-campus apartment in April. To make sure he could cancel his dorm contract without penalty, he emailed a university housing official April 11.
The housing representative responded the next day, saying that for returning residents "no charge is made when the cancellation is received by May 1."
He was instructed to submit a housing contract release form, which he did.
He was shocked when NIU informed him May 7 that he would not be released from his contract. The university said he would be charged for the entire school year — $7,490.
The letter informed him that to avoid paying the $7,490 in housing costs, he must withdraw from the university, something Lewandowski had no intention of doing.
He filed an appeal with the university's Housing and Dining Office. It was quickly denied.
He filed a second appeal, which was heard by the Housing Release Appeals Board on Thursday. Lewandowski did not appear at the hearing but submitted written evidence. Concerned the university was not giving her son a fair shake, his mother, Rita, emailed What's Your Problem?
"Chris would not have signed up in December if he had not been misled by an NIU housing representative that he could, in good faith, cancel by May 1," she wrote.
He called the information from the university conflicting and confusing.
"It kind of seemed like they had tricked me into signing up for a dorm without giving me the proper information," he said. "I'm incredibly frustrated. I'm kind of feeling like they're getting away with stealing a bunch of money from me. I feel like I'm a helpless college student."
The Problem Solver contacted Paul Palian, director of media and public relations for NIU.
Palian sent several screen shots from the university's website that show the housing department's policy is to allow students three days to cancel their dorm contract after signing up.
"After this three (3) day period, students are not typically released from their contractual obligation to commute from home or move to alternative off-campus housing," a screen shot from the housing sign-up page says. "By clicking on the "Continue" button below, you expressly agree to enter into a housing contract with NIU for the academic year."
The Problem Solver asked Palian whether an NIU employee told Lewandowski by phone in December, then again by email in April, that he could cancel the dorm contract without penalty if he did so by May 1.
"Indeed, it does appear there was a difference of understanding of the May 1 deadline to receive a full refund of deposit based on the email exchange in April," Palian wrote in an email. "However, I am not aware of the full context of those emails."
In addition, he said, "I do not have any information about communication that may have been made in December other than (general university) communications I forwarded to you. Those communications — in addition to the screen shot from the online sign up — seem to clearly indicate what the policy is, and the screen shot specifically allows a three-day opt-out period."
Palian said Lewandowski is currently going through the formal appeal process.
"I would ask that this process take its course before moving forward," Palian said.
Students are usually notified of the appeal board's ruling within 10 business days, he said.
"I would imagine all communications would have been brought forth in the hearing, and I am confident that if events occurred as indicated, the recommendation of the third-party review would yield a satisfactory resolution for all parties involved through the normal appeals process," Palian wrote.
Rita Lewandowski said Monday her son had not heard of the appeal board's ruling, but he was not optimistic.
"He's kind of given up," she said. "He doesn't think they're probably going to care."
The Problem Solver will provide an update when the ruling is delivered.