While colleges say they’re still offering instruction, students say online classes aren’t what they signed up for.
College students across the country are continuing to sue their universities, claiming they should not have to pay full tuition for classes forced online by coronavirus.
USA Today reports that at least a dozen colleges have been hit with lawsuits and prospective class actions. Last week, for instance, an Indiana University student launched a claim against the school, requesting partial reimbursement for tuition and fees paid towards spring semester tuition.
Indiana University—like most other schools in the United States—moved its courses online in response to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
However, some students say online instruction isn’t enough: that their tuition wasn’t intended to only cover the cost of teaching, but access to services, facilities, and networking opportunities they can no longer access or avail.
Such lawsuits have been filed against a collection of colleges in the Midwest, including Indiana University, Perdue, the University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Michigan State University.
Farther afield, students at “the University of Southern California, Georgia Washington University, Boston University, Brown University,” and Vanderbilt have all done the same.
Justin Spiegel, an undergraduate at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, filed a potential class action on behalf of the approximately 41,000 students who were enrolled at IU-Bloomington this past semester. Spiegel, says USA Today, hopes to certify two classes: students who paid tuition and then were denied in-person instruction, and students wh
o paid fees for on-campus services, like transportation and healthcare, but can no longer use them.
Class action attorney Roy Willey, of the Anastopoulo Law Firm, told USA Today the case comes down to “basic fairness.”
“Student and their families have pre-paid tuition and fees for services, access to facilities and experiential education and universities and colleges are not delivering those services, access, or experiences,” Willey said. “Now universities are not delivering those services that students and their families have paid for and it’s not fair for the universities with multi-million dollar endowments to keep all of the money that students and their families have paid.”
“It’s not fair,” Willey added, “to pass the full burden onto students and their families.”
Kunal Pasrija, an MBA student at Northwestern University, gave The Wall Street Journal the analogy of concert tickets.
“Would you pay $75,000 for front-row seats to a Beyoncé concert and be satisfied with a livestream instead?” Pasrija wrote.
Of course, lawsuits demanding tuition refunds are liable to face and uphill battle. Many universities have already provided on-campus students with partial housing refunds and meal plan credits. As LegalReader has reported before, some litigation experts don’t believe online courses are a fundamental breach of contract between university administrators and tuition-paying students.
“The students are going to have an uphill battle unless a school has actually shut down and they’re not getting credit,” James Keller, co-chair of the higher education practice at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP., told the WSJ. “The basic contractual agreement is, I pay tuition, and if I satisfy academic requirements, you give me credit. That’s happening.”
But, as Spiegel’s lawsuit notes, students expect more than just an education.
Tuition costs—which has risen exorbitantly in the past several decades—are also meant to facilitate face-to-face interaction with professors, advisors, and other students; they also cover on-campus facilities, such as computer labs and use of recreational spaces.
The Indianapolis Star observes that Indiana University charges substantially less for Spiegel’s degree when it’s taken in all-online format. That seems to lend some credence to the arguments underlying lawsuits like Spiegel’s: that tuition isn’t just meant for paying professors.
“The true college experience encompasses much more than just the credit hours and degrees,” Spiegel’s lawsuit says.