Georgetown University, whose nearly empty campus in Washington, DC, is seen here on May 7, 2020—is one of more than 60 schools being sued by students, who are demanding a partial tuition refund after classes moved online due to the coronavirus outbreak.
At least 60 colleges and universities across the country, and perhaps as many as 100 or more, are now being sued by students who believe they were short-changed when their in-person college experience was replaced by an online one as schools shut down campuses this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. The students are demanding a refund on tuition and fees equal to the difference between what they paid for in advance and the instruction and educational services they actually received.
The unprecedented number of class action lawsuits began as a trickle in April, picked up momentum in May, and have continued to expand throughout June, with experts saying there are likely many more to come.
The schools currently facing student lawsuits include elite universities like Brown, Columbia, Duke, Emory and Georgetown as well as major public university systems like Rutgers in New Jersey and the University of North Carolina.
Brady Allen is the lead plaintiff in the class action against UNC Charlotte. He was among the nearly 240,000 students the UNC System moved to remote learning to limit the spread of the coronavirus. “Part of the value in being an in-person college student is being able to build relationships that last forever with the students who are sitting around you,” explains Allen. “When we went online, I lost connections with other students, as well as the faculty.”
Allen also claims that the instruction itself declined in quality. For example, in Strategic Management, a capstone, senior level class for business majors, instead of giving virtual lectures, the professor resorted to posting notes and PowerPoint presentations online. “I didn’t receive another lecture from that professor,” says Allen. “I think going from expecting lots more lectures to not having another lecture is an extreme decrease in value. Yet, we were still paying the same price for tuition.”
Allen is being represented by the Anastopoulo law firm in Charleston, South Carolina, which has set up a website to solicit interest from disgruntled college students, collegerefund2020.com. To date, lead attorney Roy Willey IV has filed more than 30 lawsuits on behalf of individual students against colleges and universities across the country including the University of Miami, Boston University, Drexel University as well as the 17-member UNC System.
“We’re looking at these cases on a scale of fairness to students,” says Willey. “Students and their families have prepaid tuition and fees for services, access to facilities and experiential education and the universities and colleges are not delivering those services, access or experiences.”
On the other side of the country, Steve Berman of the consumer rights law firm Hagens Berman in Seattle says his office receives a call from an aggrieved student at a different university almost every day seeking redress. Berman has filed suit on behalf of students from a dozen colleges, including Duke, Emory, Georgetown, Rutgers, the University of Southern California and Vanderbilt, among others.
Both attorneys essentially make the same case on behalf of the students they’re representing: By substituting an online education for an in-person one, defendants stripped plaintiffs of the true college experience they had expressly sought and paid for. “Students did not enroll to click through PowerPoint slides and waste their student loans on cancelled classes and absentee coursework,” said Berman.
Audrey Anderson, a higher education expert and former general counsel for Vanderbilt University, believes plaintiffs can’t support a breach of contract claim. “I have never seen a contract, a written piece of paper between the university and a student that promises that they are going to have in-person instruction of a certain quality,” says Anderson. “It’s going to be hard to prove that an express promise has been violated. The students still got education and college credits for their tuition money.”
Berman isn’t concerned, however. “You sign an agreement that says your kid is going to go to classes and read literature and so forth and the school describes what they’re going to provide in exchange. I think all of that is either an implied or express contract.”
Charlotte education attorney Jonathan Vogel, a former deputy general counsel for the U.S. Department of Education, says there is sufficient documentation to support the notion of a contract between students and their colleges and believes arguing force majeure is a better defense.
“Force majeure in a legal defense means impossibility of performance. It says there was an unanticipated act of nature or act of God that interfered with the ability to perform on the contract,” says Vogel. “Maybe it’s not an act of God, but it was an act of the governor that closed the universities.”
In their complaints, the students allege that the universities have either refused or provided insufficient reimbursement. “We’re seeking that percentage or portion, which represents the difference between what students paid for the spring semester, and what they actually received for tuition fees, room and board, depending on the campus,” says Willey.
Willey and Berman have asked the courts to certify the suits as part of a class action, where one named plaintiff represents a group with a same or similar cause. They believe this is the best way to ensure students are made whole. If these lawsuits succeed, all students at the named colleges and universities will be compensated. Plaintiffs have not requested a specific dollar amount but attorneys estimate that each student is probably entitled to refunds in the low thousands of dollars.
“The damages are a small amount per student,” says Willey. “If the students had to bring them on an individual basis, economically, it would not make a lot of sense.”
In the end, courts will determine if an online education is an adequate substitute for an in-person one and put a dollar figure on that difference. One place to begin that assessment, experts say, is by looking at how schools have traditionally priced both options.
Some schools offer virtual classes for significantly less than their brick and mortar courses. For example, at UNC Wilmington the 2020-2021 annual cost of attendance for full-time undergrad students is $4,510 for the on-campus degree program versus $3,710 for a distance education. Willey says tuition for Drexel’s online classes is 40 percent less than traditional courses. Plaintiffs argue that they deserve a similar rebate for the portion of the semester they missed.
This litigation is in the early stages and most defendants have not yet responded. UNC Charlotte, Duke, Drexel and Georgetown also declined to comment to Newsweek on the pending lawsuits. However, Willey says these complaints have already led some institutions to take what he deems as a more fair approach to refunds and reimbursements.
The UNC System, for example, started distributing prorated reimbursements for unused housing and dining services to students, but tuition and fees refunds have not been included, so far. The most recent budget proposal indicates it may be preparing for that eventuality, however, by seeking funds to offset COVID-related expenses, including an estimated $120 million for prorated reimbursements.
Class action lawsuits usually take several years to wind their way through the courts. Regardless of the eventual outcome, these complaints will probably have a lasting impact on the tuition structure going forward. UNC System schools have announced reduced tuition for the fully online summer term, a tacit acknowledgment that they won’t be able to price virtual and in-person learning equally.
“Schools may have to think hard about what kind of changes they’re going to make, says Willey, “because the issue is out there now that an education online is not the same value or quality as an in-person education.”