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College & COVID-19: Students Bring Wave of Lawsuits Seeking Tuition Refunds

April 29, 2020


As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly took hold in the U.S. in early March, colleges and universities were some of the first institutions to physically close, sending students home and taking classes online. While many of the initial closures were for only a temporary two-week period, nearly all schools extended their closures through the end of the Spring 2020 term. With much still unknown, there is an increasing likelihood that the Fall 2020 term may also be virtual at many institutions.

Higher educational brick-and-mortar schools and their millions of students are now immersed in the unprecedented world of wholly online learning. Of course, in 2020, online learning and fully-online universities are nothing new. But for students who opted, and paid, for traditional face-to-face education, the forced shift from face-to-face to online is starting to generate a new COVID-19 induced legal battle.

Consider this: The average yearly tuition is $10,116 for public universities and $36,801 for private universities, plus room board and ancillaries. Meanwhile, the average total cost of a four-year fully online degree is in the $30,000-range.[1]

The Lawsuits

What happens when students pay for an in-person education at a traditional brick-and-mortar school, but receive only online instruction?

This question is now being raised in over a dozen lawsuits recently filed on behalf of students against colleges, universities, and their boards, with students seeking tuition reimbursement in response to the physical closure of campuses and the unexpected shift to online learning. While some schools have prorated reimbursements for room and board, very few have voluntarily provided even partial tuition reimbursement.

Students have filed complaints against Long Island University, University of Vermont, Penn State, University of Oklahoma, University of Colorado (Boulder), Purdue, Drexel, University of Miami, Fordham, Vanderbilt, Michigan State, Columbia, Cornell, Pace University, and most recently, California’s state university systems (University of California and California State University schools). These cases demand restitution for Spring 2020 tuition, room, board, and fees based on claims for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and conversion. Many seek to become class actions and represent hundreds of thousands of students.

The gist of the contract claims: this is not what we paid for. As one complaint alleges,

[T]he online learning options being offered to [the university’s] students are subpar in practically every aspect, including the lack of facilities, materials, and access to faculty . . . The remote learning options are in no way the equivalent of the in-person education that Plaintiff and the putative class members contracted and paid for.

The gist of the unjust enrichment claim: we have no access to the facilities and fees for which we paid, and you are saving a ton of money. The gist of the conversion claims: you are keeping money for services that you are no longer providing.

The complaints point to the loss of various aspects of the in-person college experience that students are technically still paying for, such as face-to-face interaction with faculty and peers, access to facilities (like libraries, laboratories, computer labs, and study rooms), extra-curricular activities, groups, intramural sports, art, cultures, and other activities, among other benefits covered by tuition and fees.

As these complaints were just recently filed, not all higher educational institutions have had an opportunity to present their viewpoint. So far, the few schools that have responded maintain that they have firm legal grounds to refuse reimbursement because, by continuing to hold classes for credit virtually and offer services remotely, they are fulfilling the terms of their contracts and complying with applicable government orders.

If you have questions or concerns about the recent developments in COVID-19 tuition issues and lawsuits, the attorneys in Montgomery McCracken’s Higher Education and Class Action Defense Practice Groups are available to assist. Visit the firm’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center for more information and updates on this constantly evolving situation.

[1] See Farran Powell and Emma Kerr, See the Average College Tuition in 2019-2020, U.S. News & World Report (Sept. 9, 2019); Illana Kowarski, 10 Affordable Online Colleges for In-State Students, U.S. News & World Report (Jan. 21, 2020).