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Opinion

Editorial: A new extracurricular: Suing colleges for a COVID-19-tainted experience

Class
Laura Grant, assistant professor of economics, holds a class via Zoom at Claremont McKenna College in April.
(Los Angeles Times)

Among the many millions of people who have gotten a raw deal this spring are college students who were suddenly told by their schools to pack up, head home and spend the rest of the semester learning online. For some of them, especially foreign students with no place to stay and no way to get home, it was a nightmare.

It’s been less than ideal, to be sure. But most college students have families and homes where they were able to go. They’re still receiving an education, the same course credits as always and, for seniors, a degree — albeit one minus the big stage-walking event. Most of them have the devices and internet access needed to “attend” classes and the intellectual maturity to complete their work.

Colleges refunded money for the room and board that wasn’t getting used. Yet some students are demanding partial tuition refunds too. Lawsuits have been filed against more than two dozen colleges and universities, including Ivy League and state schools, claiming that online courses simply aren’t the same as those taught in classrooms, even when the same professors are teaching.

Of course they’re not. Although online courses can be a valuable way to learn and some students prefer them, most college students would rather have face-to-face instruction and the chance to interact with classmates and instructors. Certainly, chemistry and other laboratory science courses lack the hands-on touch on the internet. The students also are missing out on parties, extracurricular activities, events, strolling and sitting around campus — so many moments that make up our romantic dream of the college experience.

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Nobody wanted campuses to shut down, but then, nobody wanted most of what’s happened over the last two months. Extraordinary numbers of people are taking a devastating hit in their lives, whether it’s getting furloughed or laid off, watching nest eggs dive in the stock market, struggling with loneliness and depression, working in places that put them in danger of infection, feeling sick for weeks with COVID-19 or losing a loved one.

College tuition is crazy expensive, and parents who have paid it understandably think they’re not getting their money’s worth. But colleges also have faced extra costs as they’ve shifted suddenly from campus-based to computer-based. They still must pay professors, who still must teach the courses. They have to deep-clean their campuses and maintain buildings and grounds. Many of them paid to send low-income and foreign students home, and they are losing money from the closed dormitories. In a way, families are very much getting their money’s worth — an adapted education in the face of an unprecedented shutdown.

That doesn’t absolve schools of all financial responsibility. Colleges should refund the student activity fees they collected for concerts and events that never took place — an obvious step that some schools have refused to take. Schools also should provide refunds to any students who can prove that the shift online kept them from being able to complete their education on time, costing them extra money. In addition, there’s a moral obligation to reach out to students who are homeless or who need other help. It will be imperative to increase financial aid next year to low- and moderate-income families, and a lot more families will qualify after the job losses of this spring.

And that’s where these lawsuits could go horribly wrong. Colleges will have to make ends meet somehow. If they have to pay out millions of dollars in tuition refunds because academic plans changed through no fault of their own, they might be compelled to increase tuition sharply in the fall and reduce financial aid in coming years. No one wins.

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It’s the lesson of the pandemic. Nothing is perfect. Few remain unscathed. We give up something — an idyllic college experience, perhaps — for a greater good.


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