In the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic, major industries everywhere are attempting to adjust to the challenges in these unprecedented times. The higher education system in the United States is no exception. While many colleges and universities moved to an online learning model for at least the rest of the semester, many students have made it clear that they do not believe that they have gotten what they bargained for. Unsurprisingly, a steady stream of students and parents have already begun to file class action lawsuits.
These lawsuits address several different categories of fees that schools already collected at the beginning of the Spring 2019 semester: tuition, on-campus housing, meal plans, and mandatory/general fees.
Relating to tuition, the plaintiffs in class action lawsuits against Drexel University, the University of Miami, and the University of Vermont specifically note that the respective universities marketed the on-campus experience as a benefit of enrollment. The plaintiffs argue that online education is not interchangeable with a face-to-face classroom (and campus) experience. In fact, in another lawsuit against Purdue University, the plaintiffs cited a Brookings Institute study from 2017 that found that taking courses online “increases their likelihood of dropping out and otherwise impedes progress through college.” The plaintiffs in these cases have also argued that taking pass/fail classes online will ultimately dilute their eventual degrees.
While the plaintiffs in the University of Vermont case sought “a partial refund of tuition representing the difference in value of live-in person instruction versus online distance learning,” they did not quantify what that difference would be. However, the plaintiffs in another lawsuit against Columbia University noted that there was an approximately $10,000 difference in the cost of tuition for an on-campus undergraduate degree in social work ($58,612), than the cost of tuition for that same degree online ($48,780). It does not appear that any school has yet offered a credit or refund for the difference in cost of online learning versus the cost of in classroom learning.
Other lawsuits have specifically targeted the various mandatory fees that students pay at the beginning of each semester. While some schools (such as the University of Cincinnati) refunded theses costs on a pro rata basis, others have not. For example, a class action lawsuit against the Arizona Board of Regents asserted that mandatory fees for undergraduates at the University of Arizona’s main campus include: 1) Arizona Financial Aid Trust Fee, 2) Athletics Fee, 3) Freshman Fee, 4) Health and Recreation Fee, 5) Information Technology/Library Fee, 6) Recreation Center Bond Retirement Fee, 7) Recreation Center Program Fee, 8) Student Media Fee, 9) Student Services Fee, and 10) an Events Board Fee. Per semester, these fees can range from about $100 to $700, and cover services that are no longer available to students.
Furthermore, some Plaintiffs alleged that universities have put on a façade to appear open in order to try and avoid having to return fees. For example, the plaintiffs in a class action against Liberty University alleged that the school staying ‘open’ serves “as a pretext to retain Plaintiff’s and the other Class members’ room, board, and campus fees, despite no longer having to incur the full cost of providing those services, all the while putting students’ finances and health at risk.” In the University of Vermont case, even though an express condition for the Housing and Meal Plan Contract states that room and meal plans won’t be refunded in the event of a pandemic where the University closes, the school has not yet “closed” as of the time of the April 21, 2020 filing, perhaps in an effort to avoid having to refund even greater amounts.
There will be several novel legal issues that may need to be addressed when considering class certification. For example, courts will have to determine if a plaintiff in a hard-sciences major (such as chemistry) has a “common” or “typical” claim of a class member in a humanities major (such as history), that is likely better suited to online learning. Further, not every plaintiff or class member will have the same damages, as one plaintiff may qualify for in-state tuition and pay for on-campus parking, while another student may pay out of state tuition and not pay for parking. While universities are certainly themselves hurting economically during these times, it is worth watching whether universities are more likely to accommodate refund requests to avoid being drawn into class action litigation.