Hands-on learning. Face-to-face interactions. Study sessions in the student union. Workouts in the student gym.
That’s what students said they signed up for — and were required to pay for — when they attended universities across the country last spring.
But, they argue, it’s not what they got once the coronavirus drove them off campus. And now they want their money back.
Class-action lawsuits calling for partial reimbursement of tuition and fees are continuing to amass nationwide — from Ivy League institutions to goliath state university systems to small private colleges — with potentially hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.
Lawsuits challenging the entire University of California and California State University systems — which encompass UC San Diego, San Diego State University and Cal State San Marcos — are already deep into litigation. If certified as class actions, the cases could incorporate more than 750,000 students combined.
And the University of San Diego is facing similar claims in a case filed on Oct. 1.
The lawsuits don’t begrudge the universities for abruptly closing campuses to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But they are asking courts to weigh who should bear the financial burden of any fallout.
And while the litigation will ultimately be decided on legal questions, the lawsuits are also serving as a backdrop for a larger conversation about the value of a four-year degree, whether earned in a traditional college setting or online, and the soaring costs often associated with it.
“There have been these questions about value bubbling under the surface for a long time, and the pandemic burst that wide open,” said Tamara Hiler, director of education for Third Way, a centrist think tank that has polled on higher education policy and attitudes.
“We’re willing to pay something,” she said, “but what exactly are we paying for?”
Breach of contract
At the heart of the lawsuits are the allegations that schools breached a contract with students by failing to provide an agreed-upon service in exchange for an agreed-upon price, and that the schools were unjustly enriched by retaining those funds.
Haley Martinez and Matthew Sheridan, students of USD’s Paralegal Certificate Program, argue in their recent lawsuit that they did not get the full value out of their $6,500-plus in tuition and fees when they were forced to finish the spring semester online.
USD students “contracted and paid for an education, not course credits,” the lawsuit states. “They paid for the robust education and full experience of academic life on USD’s campus; remote online learning cannot provide the same value as in-person education.”
The lawsuit points to USD’s own tuition structure, which assigns a different dollar value to in-person instruction than it does to online learning. For example, a master of science in healthcare informatics costs $1,580 per unit for on-campus classes compared to $925 per unit for the online version.
In the online environment, Sheridan received fewer hours of instruction and days of classes than promised, the lawsuit states. The allegation is a common one across many of the lawsuits, as many traditional schools were woefully underprepared to make the abrupt switch to online.
The ability to learn hands-on is also something that the virtual world could not replicate, the lawsuits contend. One University of Rochester music student couldn’t continue his chamber ensemble and organ classes at the elite Eastman School of Music, according to a lawsuit filed in New York. A student at Purdue University who filed a lawsuit lamented not being able to finish his senior project — constructing an airplane.
Sheridan missed out on a “real world” internship that the paralegal program had promised, according to the USD lawsuit. He had to make do with a simulated one instead, adding to the concern that he may be at a disadvantage when it comes time to get a job, said one of his Washington, D.C.-based lawyers, Yvette Golan.
“They’re suffering like all USD students. It’s not just this semester or last semester,” said Golan, who is also helping litigate the case against the Rochester school, as well as Yale University, Northwestern University, Boston College and others. “Their education is going to follow them throughout their careers.” Her clients declined to be interviewed for this story.
While the USD lawsuit names only two paralegal students for now, it asks for a judge to certify a class action that would include all of the school’s affected student body, some 9,000 students.
That lawsuit, like many of them, leaves open for argument exactly how much students should receive in refunds. Undergraduate students at USD pay more than $25,000 for tuition per semester and some $360 in mandatory fees. That does not include room and board costs, which were refunded when the students moved out.
A USD spokesperson declined to address the specifics of the lawsuit, citing policy. But she explained how the school has generally tried to bolster the learning experience in light of the pandemic, as well as weather a financial crisis without cutting jobs or passing extra costs onto students.
An increase in tuition that hit this fall had been approved in 2019, before COVID-19, said spokesperson Lissette Martinez. Some in-person instruction has come back to campus this fall, but most classes are still being taught online. On-campus services — many of which are typically paid for by tuition or other fees — are still accessible virtually, including the library, counseling and health services, ministry, social organizations and career services.
“We are investing in technology in the classrooms to ensure the hybrid model delivers on our commitment to academic excellence. This summer, more than 350 of our faculty enrolled in training courses on delivering the highest quality educational experience grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition, regardless of the delivery mode,” Martinez said.
The private school is facing an expected budget shortfall of more than $40 million this academic year.
“With the pandemic, everybody’s had to make adjustments, including schools — I get that,” said Golan, the attorney. “Students and parents are taking on massive loans at a time their jobs aren’t necessarily guaranteed. A lot are losing work.
“USD is in a financially superior position to handle a risk like this,” she added. “Students are not.”
A mixed bag
Other lawsuits nationwide are much further along in litigating the issue. The results so far have been mixed, and it remains unclear if the various state and federal courts tapped to hear the matters will come to any kind of universal agreement.
“This case is novel in the sense that there is no legal precedent involving a pandemic’s impact on a school’s promise to provide in-person learning when doing so would be unsafe and/or against government mandates,” a federal judge in Tampa wrote in considering a lawsuit against Florida Southern College.
“And so, like the ripple in a pond after one throws a stone, the legal system is now feeling COVID-19’s havoc with the current wave of class action lawsuits that seek tuition reimbursement related to forced online tutelage.”
The judge went on to rule that the case can continue to move forward, one of a handful of similar cases that have passed initial hurdles.
Meanwhile, on the same day that USD students filed their suit in San Diego federal court, a federal judge in Boston largely dismissed a similar action filed against Northeastern University.
Two students had argued that the school’s course descriptions promised classes “within an assigned room in specific buildings ... on Northeastern’s Boston campus.”
But the judge said the lawsuit was unable to “plausibly establish that the parties’ contract included any right to in-person instruction.” He said remote learning was an “adequate alternative remedy” and did not warrant a tuition reimbursement.
He also dismissed the argument that the school should reimburse any student activity fees, student center fees, or undergraduate student fees. However, the case can proceed as to potential reimbursement of recreation fees, with the judge noting that students lost the ability to attend home athletic games or use fitness facilities.
Lawsuits against California’s state school systems, filed by students elsewhere in the state, are at a crucial point as federal judges in Los Angeles and San Francisco consider whether the cases should be dismissed or move toward trial.
The lawsuits point to federal pandemic stimulus money that California’s universities have been given to help them and their students through the crisis — more than $785 million between the two main systems. Attorneys representing a Sonoma State University student suing the CSU argued “the CARES funds are intended to be used as emergency cash grants, not as a vehicle for universities to retain money that is not theirs to retain.”
School officials, in turn, note hemorrhaging budgets. SDSU, which is still largely teaching online, is expecting to address a $67-million budget gap this year, part of a combined $750 million in losses and unexpected costs across the CSU’s 23 campuses, according to officials.
“The CSU is committed to providing a high-quality education at exceptional value, and CSU’s annual tuition is amongst the lowest in the nation,” said spokesperson Michael Uhlenkamp, noting that SDSU saw its highest fall enrollment in 12 years.
Petitions asking for reduced or reimbursed costs have been collecting thousands of signatures on Change.org.
More than 22,000 people have put their names to a petition advocating for reduced fees at UCSD for the spring. Another, with 870 signatures, demands a 10% to 20% refund for spring tuition at USD. Nearly 2,000 people have signed a petition asking for a reduction of about $1,000 per year in tuition and fees for SDSU undergrads.
“I would like to receive some money back,” said SDSU advertising senior Roxana Becerril in an interview. She lives off campus and is taking her final semester online. “It’s not just because of the education, it’s the student fees. It’s the whole package.”
She said she’s not able to use some school services, and even though some are online, “It’s not the same.”
While she has not minded the switch to online classes overall, some instructors have not stepped up to offer what she views as an adequate replacement. “As far as the education goes, it’s really up to student and teacher, and your own drive,” Becerril said.
In its motion to the court to dismiss the lawsuit, attorneys for the CSU argued in one case that mandatory fees are flat rather than based on individual use, and that there are no allegations that certain services were discontinued due to COVID-19.
Furthermore, the lawsuit “does not allege that students failed to receive credits for courses for which they paid tuition and does not specify any differences in instructional quality between in-class and remote instruction,” CSU attorneys argued.
Attorneys for the UC Regents argued that the students have “failed to identify any specific sum of money owed. Nor can they, given the undifferentiated way in which the funds are allocated.”
The larger question of exactly how those funds are allocated has become more pressing for many students in light of the pandemic, according to research by Third Way, the Washington-based think tank.
“The general sentiment is: What is the value of higher education, and what is the return on investment that students and families expect to see?” said Hiler, one of the organization’s directors, who has advocated for greater transparency in college costs.
A survey commissioned by Third Way and New America in August shows rising debt remains a major concern among college and high school seniors, as is the ability to get a job after graduation in a weakened economy. More than half of college students — 54% — also expressed reservations that their degree may lose value because it was earned online.
While the majority of the college students surveyed still believe there is value in obtaining a degree and don’t plan on changing their educational trajectory, nearly half also said that higher education is not worth the cost anymore.
Some schools, including Georgetown University and Princeton University, have acknowledged such concerns — at least in part. Both schools discounted fall tuition by 10%.
Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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