Some class-action lawsuits seeking partial fee refunds from 26 universities say they are sitting on endowments surpassing USD 1 billion.
Higher education in the US is expensive and has led to crippling financial debt for a lot of youngsters—so much so that one of the main campaign promises of the erstwhile presidential election candidate Bernie Sanders was to waive student loans. So, when students who've paid a bomb for the famed campus experience at premier universities were sent home to learn online during the coronavirus pandemic, they didn't feel they got their money's worth.
Now, students at more than 25 US universities are filing lawsuits against their schools demanding partial refunds on tuition and campus fees, saying they’re not getting the calibre of education they were promised.
The suits say students should pay lower rates for the portion of the term that was offered online, arguing that the quality of instruction is far below the classroom experience.
Colleges, though, reject the idea that refunds are in order. Students are learning from the same professors who teach on campus, officials have said, and they’re still earning credits toward their degrees.
Grainger Rickenbaker, 21, who filed a class-action lawsuit against Drexel University in Philadelphia, said there's little interaction with students or professors and some classes are being taught almost entirely through recorded videos, with no live lecture or discussion.
Other students report similar experiences elsewhere. A complaint against the University of California, Berkeley, says some professors are simply uploading assignments, with no video instruction at all. A case against Vanderbilt University says class discussion has been stymied and the “quality and academic rigor of courses has significantly decreased.”
In a case against Purdue University, a senior engineering student said the closure has prevented him from finishing his senior project, building an airplane. “No online course can simulate the applicable, real-world experience” he hoped to gain from the project, the complaint says.
Class-action lawsuits demanding tuition refunds have been filed against at least 26 colleges, targeting prestigious private universities, including Brown, Columbia and Cornell, along with big public schools, including Michigan State, Purdue and the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Some of the suits draw attention to schools’ large financial reserves, saying colleges are unfairly withholding refunds even while they rest on endowments that often surpass USD 1 billion.
Several colleges declined to comment on the lawsuits, but some said students have continued to get what they paid for.
Ken McConnellogue, a spokesman for the University of Colorado, said it’s disappointing that people have been so quick to file lawsuits only weeks into the pandemic. He said the suits appear to be driven by a small number of “opportunistic” law firms.
Lawyers representing students, however, say the refunds are a matter of fairness.
“You cannot keep money for services and access if you aren’t actually providing it,” said Roy Willey, a lawyer for the Anastopoulo Law Firm in South Carolina, which is representing students in more than a dozen cases. “If we’re truly going to be all in this together, the universities have to tighten their belts and refund the money back to students and families who really need it.”
Willey said his office has received hundreds of inquiries from students looking to file suits, and his firm is looking into dozens of possible cases. Other firms taking on similar cases say they’re also seeing a wave of demand from students and parents who say they deserve refunds.
Along with tuition, the cases also seek refunds for fees that students paid to access gyms, libraries, labs and other buildings that are now closed. All told, the complaints seek refunds that could add up to several thousand dollars per student at some schools.
Scores of schools have returned portions of housing and dining fees, but few if any have agreed to return any share of tuition.
At the University of Chicago, hundreds of students signed a letter saying they will refuse to pay this term’s tuition, which was due April 29, unless the school reduces tuition by 50% and keeps it at that level during the crisis.
The lawsuits ask courts to answer a thorny question that has come to the fore as universities shift classes online: whether there’s a difference in value between online instruction and the traditional classroom.
Willey adds that colleges themselves often charge lower rates for online classes, which he says is a reflection of their value.