One of the many collateral consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has been its effects on the higher education system. More than 4,000 universities and colleges in the United States have closed their campuses and switched to online learning formats in response to the virus, affecting at least 25 million students. With most closures occurring in mid-March, many students have had to complete their spring semester via online learning. The closure of college campuses has also displaced students who live on-campus, negatively impacting the living situation of those who do not have elsewhere to live.
In response to these closures, students across the country have filed class action lawsuits against their colleges and universities seeking tuition refunds, among other reimbursements. In light of the possibility that remote learning may continue for semesters to come, the class action lawsuits are bound to set precedent for the U.S. educational landscape.
Allegations Against Universities
A number of class action lawsuits have been filed against colleges and universities, with class members typically defined as any enrolled student who has paid for tuition, room and board, and other costs. Many students seek reimbursement for housing, dining, and on-campus services. Other lawsuits are requesting tuition refunds on the basis that remote learning is a lesser form of education. Currently, at least 70 universities and colleges are facing lawsuits that call into question the value of online learning.
Can Students Win?
In the cases of more tangible services, such as meal plans and room and board, it is easier to quantify students’ loss. As one spokesperson for the Education Department explains, “If a school continues to offer instruction to students, but requires students to leave their on-campus housing facilities, it is the responsibility of the school to determine how to make appropriate refunds to students for housing or meal services not provided.”
Tuition refunds on the basis that online learning is inadequate is a less clear-cut issue. Proponents of tuition refunds have argued that moving to online instruction constitutes a breach of certain universities’ contracts, as such institutions are contractually obligated to provide in-person classes and campus resources to students. They contend a refund is warranted for services not provided, as the pandemic has prevented these terms from being fulfilled.
In order to succeed with any breach of contract claim, however, the terms of the contract must be defined. The student-college relationship is not defined by any one concrete document outlining the school’s obligations in exchange for tuition. Likewise, whether online learning would be an acceptable contingency plan in lieu of in-person classes is not an issue typically addressed in college admissions paperwork. As Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and Vice President of Research for savingforcollege.com commented, “When I took a sample of about 100 colleges and looked for their policies concerning refunds, none of them were refunding tuition. They didn’t even speak to the situation where they had to cancel a class.”
In the absence of a formal contract, any communications between the college and student upon enrollment will be a critical factor in determining the scope of the student-college agreement. The college’s marketing, for example, may come into play if specific services were promoted to potential students and promised to those enrolled.
The Collegiate Response
There are a number of defenses that universities will likely raise in response to these class action lawsuits—many of which are rooted in textbook contract law. As to the contract claims, many colleges will likely argue that they did not breach any contract because they did not fail to provide educational services. Without identification of a specific promise for in-class learning, colleges may argue that they are still providing the requisite and necessary education to their students. That being said, schools may still be liable for providing services so subpar that it can be argued to be akin to negligence or professional malpractice. Whether the value of online learning is lesser than that of in-class studies to the extent that schools should be held liable, is a question for the courts.
In their defense, colleges and universities may also turn to the legal argument of impossibility of performance. This will be applicable particularly for those that closed campuses in response to a state shutdown order. Likewise, a force majeure clause, which protects a party from liability if their failure to perform their obligations was due to a catastrophic event beyond its control, is another likely argument for their defense.
The Future of Higher Education
These currently pending lawsuits are likely just the beginning for the legal backlash against higher education institutions. Many schools have argued that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a deleterious financial strain—with estimates of $1 billion in losses across the entire higher education system. But many of the class action lawsuits have stressed that it’s unfair to expect students to shoulder the school’s losses. The fallout of both the Spring and Fall 2020 semesters, as well as the pending class action cases, have left the financial future of colleges—particularly smaller schools located outside of populous cities—in a precarious state.
The COVID-19 pandemic has launched higher education institutions into unprecedented territory for learning and prompts novel legal questions about the relationship between students and colleges. But for the outcome of the fight for tuition reimbursements, for now, we must turn to the courts.
List of Universities Facing COVID-19-Related Lawsuits
Arizona State Universities
In a class action filed against the Arizona Board of Regents, students are seeking refunds for their housing costs. Students at the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, and Northern Arizona University are alleging that their schools have improperly retained funds for services they are not providing. This includes room and board, as well as on-campus services paid for by students. The lawsuit alleges breach of contract and unjust enrichment claims, on the basis that the schools failed to deliver services paid for by students. Further, they are claiming that this inequitable transaction benefitted the schools at the students’ expense. The plaintiffs are requesting the return of the prorated, unused portion of all fees paid for room and board and other student services. Arizona State and Northern Arizona have both stated that they cannot afford to offer refunds, while the University of Arizona has only offered a 10% reimbursement—or 20% credit to be applied next academic year—for students who choose not to stay in their dorms.
A Boston University student filed a class action lawsuit against the university’s Board of Trustees. The suit is seeking refunded tuition for the second half of the Spring 2020 semester—since the university moved to remote classes. The complaint alleges that subpar online instruction has diminished the, “value of any degree issued on the basis of online or pass/fail classes.” This is the second class action filed against Boston University. A similar suit was filed by a graduate student just days later.
An anonymous Brandeis University student filed a class action lawsuit against the university seeking refunds for tuition and room and board for the spring 2020 semester. The complaint alleges that the university has continued to, “reap the financial benefit of millions of dollars from students,” despite the semester being moved to an online format in mid March. This, the suit claims, entitles students to, “recover compensatory damages, trebling where permitted, and attorney’s fees and costs.”
A Brown University student has filed a class action lawsuit claiming breach of contract and unjust enrichment by the university. The suit seeks reimbursement for tuition, room and board, and other fees. The complaint alleges that the university is wrongly holding students’ payments,“ despite students’ complete inability to continue school as normal, occupy campus buildings and dormitories, or avail themselves of school programs and events.” Brown has issued only “minimal” refunds on meal plan and housing payments.
California State University
A class action lawsuit was filed against the California State University (CSU) system by a Sonoma State student. The CSU system comprises 23 schools—CSU Bakersfield, CSU Channel Islands, Chico State, CSU Dominguez Hills, Cal State East Bay, Fresno State, Cal State Fullerton, Humboldt State, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State LA, Cal Maritime, CSU Monterey Bay, CSU Northridge, Cal Poly Pomona, Sacramento State, Cal State San Bernardino, San Diego State, San Francisco State, San José State, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, CSU San Marcos, Sonoma State, and Stanislaus State—all of which were closed in mid-March, moving classes online. The complaint alleges the CSU system has improperly retained fees paid for in-person facilities no longer accessible to students. This, the complaint claims, means the CSU system is essentially, “profiting from this pandemic.”
Carnegie Mellon University
An undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon filed a lawsuit against the university seeking prorated tuition for the Spring 2020 semester as well as fee reimbursement for facilities and services students were unable to use. The lawsuit points out that students expected tuition funds to cover in-person classes, campus facilities, and peer/faculty collaboration—all of which were not made available during the COVID-19 pandemic. The complaint alleges that although Carnegie Mellon has refunded some mandatory fees but has not committed to reimbursing all fees.
In another anonymous class action, Columbia University has been named as a defendant in a suit seeking damages based on the amount of time students spent attending spring semester in-person classes. Students at Columbia University have requested damages in excess of $5 million for breach of contract and unjust enrichment. The lawsuit requests a 55% refund of tuition, the proportion of the semester that switched to online learning. The university has already refunded meal plan and dorm rent payments.
In a class action lawsuit against Cornell University, the complaint alleges online learning is “subpar in practically every aspect,” and “remote learning options are in no way the equivalent of the in-person education the Plaintiff and the putative class members contracted and paid for.” The suit seeks tuition and other fees refunded for the Spring 2020 semester after in-person classes were suspended on March 13.
Two DePaul University students have filed a class action suit against the Chicago-based university seeking tuition refunds for both the Spring and Summer 2020 terms. The complaint highlights that the university will likely receive $14 million in emergency federal aid, however, students have yet to receive reimbursement for “education, services, facilities, technology, access, or opportunities,” that were inaccessible through remote learning.
Drexel University, in Philadelphia, faces a student-led class action lawsuit seeking tuition and related fees refunds. The complaint alleges that the decision to instate remote learning has resulted in the university’s failure to provide, “contracted for services, facilities, access and/or opportunities.” The suit also states that there are currently over 100 class members, which equates to about $5 million in requested damages.
A class action lawsuit filed by an anonymous student against Duke University also seeks tuition reimbursement. But the complaint also differentiates between schools that offer remote learning as a “primary component” from those, such as Duke, that use their campus as a major draw for incoming students. This shift to remote learning, attorney Steve Berman argues, has resulted in, “No more library access, hands-on lab experiences, gym access, or in-person access to professors, all of which our client and many other Duke students paid for and expected to receive.”
Emory University in Atlanta is facing a class action lawsuit seeking prorated tuition refunds since the mid March move to online learning. The complaint alleges that Emory students’ college education during the Spring 2020 semester has been lacking due to the, “online experience presented by Google or Zoom, void of face-to-face faculty and peer interaction, separated from program resources, and barred from facilities vital to study.” According to the complaints, refunds from the university thus far have been “minimal” and not on par with the “significant losses” as a result of closing campus.
Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey is facing a class action lawsuit filed by a parent of a current student. Since transitioning to online learning in mid-March, the suit alleges that instruction has been, “in no way equivalent,” to students’ on-campus experience and seeks prorated tuition and fee refunds. The complaint also calls out that the university offers online degree programs at costs up to 50% less than in-person programs and that students and their families pay a premium for the added benefits of access to campus facilities, student organizations, networking and mentorship opportunities.
After Fordham announced it would not refund any tuition for the Spring 2020 semester, a class action lawsuit was filed against the university in New York’s Southern District. The complaint alleges that Fordham’s remote learning program during the COVID-19 outbreak was “not even remotely worth the amount” the university charges per semester—upwards of $30,000. Fordham has said it will only reduce only certain fees by 50%. Plaintiffs claim they should receive reimbursement for access to facilities and other opportunities for which they’ve already paid.
George Washington University
A parent of a George Washington University student has filed a class action lawsuit seeking partial refunds for tuition and fees for the spring 2020 semester. The complaint alleges that the university has breached contract by failing to deliver the caliber of instruction as promised due to the pandemic shutdown of campus. In response, the university claims it, “continues to deliver quality education, the tuition charged remains the same regardless of format.”
An anonymous law student filed a class action lawsuit against Georgetown claiming the university has unlawfully retained students’ tuition and fee payments in full despite transitioning to online learning during the COVID-19 crisis. The complaint alleges that tuition paid for access to faculty, campus facilities, and additional services, which were not provided by the institution during the campus shut down. The student further claims that Georgetown students lost access to critical collaborative learning, internships, and clinical placements while studying remotely.
An anonymous student has filed a class action lawsuit against Harvard University seeking tuition reimbursement for the portion of the Spring 2020 semester that was moved to an online format. The complaint alleges, “The online learning options being offered to Harvard students are subpar in practically every aspect and a shadow of what they once were.” The suit acknowledges that the university may not have had a choice in shutting down campus, however, it has now, “improperly retained funds for services it is not providing.”
A Hofstra University undergraduate filed a lawsuit against the university seeking to recover a prorated portion of tuition and fees proportionate to the amount of time students were forced to vacate campus during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the plaintiff, Hofstra provided almost no “actual, real-time instruction” during the COVID-19 period of remote learning. The claim alleges that Hosfta improperly retained funds paid for services “that have diminished in value or are not being provided at all.”
Unlike most universities across the country, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia reopened for students to return after its spring break despite reports of several potential COVID-19 cases on campus. For those students who elected not to return to campus, the university offered a $1,000 credit for the Fall 2020 semester. Liberty made no offer of credit or reimbursement for those students not returning to campus in the fall, despite encouraging students to consider staying home.
Now Liberty University is facing a class action lawsuit alleging that it improperly retained monies paid by students for fees for services and facilities they can no longer obtain value or benefit from. The plaintiff claims that Liberty is profiting from the COVID-19 pandemic by purporting to keep its campus “open” as a pretext to retain students’ Spring 2020 tuitions and fees without providing adequate educational services.
Long Island University
Long Island University is facing a class action lawsuit filed by an undergraduate student. The suit is seeking prorated tuition and fee refunds in light of the university’s suspension of in-person classes beginning March 13, 2020. The complaint alleges that virtual instruction has been, “subpar in practically every aspect, including the lack of facilities, materials, and access to faculty,” and, therefore, the university is “improperly” retaining funds for services not provided.
Loyola University Chicago
The parent of an undergraduate student at Loyola University Chicago filed a class action lawsuit against the university seeking partial refunds for tuition and other fees. The university has issued prorated refunds for room and board fees, but not for tuition payments. The complaint describes online instruction as, “watered-down, overpriced substitutes that were shoehorned at the last minute into an online format.” This, the complaint claims, has resulted in a, “less valuable education” for Loyola students.
An undergraduate at Marist University filed a class action lawsuit against the institution seeking a partial tuition refund for the Spring 2020 semester. The lawsuit alleges that since students departed campus at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, Marist has provided subpar online education and refused to issue refunds for any tuition. The complaint acknowledges that Marist did not have a choice in closing, however, it has, “improperly retained funds for services it is not providing.”
Michigan State University
A student at Michigan State University has filed a similar lawsuit seeking tuition reimbursement. As her attorney stated in a press release, “Michigan State’s decision to end classes is understandable from a public health perspective, but the University’s refund policy is unfair to students.” The statement continues, “students paid for an on-campus experience and received an off-campus experience for one-quarter of the academic year, which amounts to an educational bait-and-switch.”
A graduate student has filed a class action lawsuit against Northeastern University in Boston. The complaint alleges that the university has “unlawfully retained” student tuition and other fees for the Spring 2020 semester after announcing a move to online learning on March 12, 2020. After leaving campus, the plaintiff claims, “The online learning options being offered to Northeastern students are subpar in practically every aspect, including the lack of facilities, materials, and access to faculty.” The suit seeks a pro-rated refund of tuition and other school fees. This is the second student-led class action suit filed against Northeastern seeking tuition reimbursement from the university.
Pace University in New York City has been hit with a class action lawsuit for, “inadequate and/or arbitrary” reimbursement offers in light of in-person classes being suspending on March 10, 2020. The suit alleges that Pace has refused any tuition, mandatory fee, or meal plan refunds. Meanwhile, the school’s room and board reimbursements account for just 20% of the semester’s costs. The complaint claims that Pace’s refund offers are not commensurate with the loss of on-campus benefits.
Penn State University
An undergraduate at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) filed a class action lawsuit against the university for allegedly refusing to refund students a portion of tuition and fees paid after COVID-19 forced the university to transition to online learning. The lawsuit points out that Penn State charges significantly lower tuition for its online “World Campus” program (available prior to the COVID-19 pandemic) despite advertising that the degrees earned through online programs are equivalent to those earned by students at physical locations. According to the suit, the difference in price indicates that Penn State acknowledges the value of an online degree is worth “between 44% and 80% less than the same degree earned on a physical campus.”
The parent of a graduate student at Pepperdine University filed a class action lawsuit against the university seeking prorated tuition and fees refunds. The complaint alleges that after transitioning to online classes on March 15, 2020, students were not able to access the “comprehensive academic experience” as promised by the university. The complaint further claims that the resources and experiences of Pepperdine’s on-campus degree programs were a, “significant focus” of the school’s recruiting efforts for prospective students.
In a lawsuit against Purdue University, a senior engineering student attests that he cannot finish his senior project via online platforms. The student’s senior project involves building an airplane, which he claims cannot be accomplished during a period of online learning. The complaint alleges that remote class instruction cannot “simulate the applicable, real-world experience” of the project.
A student filed a class action lawsuit against Quinnipiac University in Connecticut seeking partial refunds for tuition, room and board, and other fees for the spring 2020 semester. The complaint alleges that online instruction has not been up to par as students rely heavily on specialized equipment, software, and on-campus resources. It further alleges that professors have been less responsive and accessible to students through Zoom classes.
Rider University in New Jersey is facing a class action lawsuit filed by an undergraduate student. The suit seeks prorated refunds for tuition and fees paid for the Spring 2020 semester after the university moved to online learning starting March 30, 2020. The complaint claims “The remote learning options are in no way the equivalent of the in-person education,” especially as so many Rider degree programs rely on campus facilities such as recording studios, design resources, and laboratory equipment.
Rutgers University in New Jersey faces a class action lawsuit proposed by parents of undergraduate students who allege that Rutgers students have received a subpar online education since the school moved to remote learning. The complaint also alleges that even if Rutgers had no choice in canceling in-person classes, the university “ improperly retained funds for services it is not providing.”
Saint John’s University
Saint John’s University in Queens, New York is currently facing a class action lawsuit for allegedly reducing the value of its education during its period of online learning. The suit seeks prorated refunds for tuition and fees, claiming students could not access the full benefits of the school’s instruction and facilities after campus closed mid-March. The complaint claims the university has “unlawfully” retained these payments.
Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD)
The Savannah College of Art & Design is facing a class action lawsuit seeking tuition refunds due to the college’s move to online classes announced on March 12, 2020. Especially as an art school, the complaint highlights that, “students rely heavily on the university’s physical resources and facilities for an effective education.” As a result of this insufficient instruction, the complaint alleges that the university has, “improperly retained funds for services and activities it is not providing.”
Seton Hall University
Seton Hall University in New Jersey faces a student-led class action lawsuit seeking tuition and fee refunds. The complaint alleges the online instruction offered after in-person classes were suspended on March 10, 2020, is, “in no way the equivalent of the in-person education that [students] contracted and paid for.” The complaint acknowledges that the university did not have a choice in closing, however, it has improperly retained student payments for services it is no longer providing.
An undergraduate information management and technology student at Syracuse filed a class action lawsuit after the university decided not to refund tuition and fees to students for remote learning accommodations during the COVID-19 shut down. In the complaint, the plaintiff cited Syracuse’s marketing of its on-campus experience as a primary factor in the decision to enroll at the institution. The plaintiff alleged that in paying tuition, he was promised face-to-face interaction with peers and mentors, participation in student clubs and campus programs, social development and independence, and networking and mentorship opportunities.
A student at Temple University in Philadelphia has filed a class action lawsuit against the university. The suit seeks prorated refunds for tuition and other fees paid for Spring 2020 term after the university suspended in-person classes on March 11, 2020. The complaint claims students are owed refunds for services that are no longer being provided by online instruction from Temple.
University of California
A class action suit was filed against the University of California system by a UC Davis student. The University of California system comprises 10 schools—UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Merced, UC Riverside, UC San Diego, UC San Francisco, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Santa Cruz. The lawsuit is seeking refunds for student fees—certain fees are UC-wide, while others pertain to specific campuses. The complaint alleges it was, “unfair and unlawful” for the UC system to retain these fees and to “pass the losses on to the students.”
University of Colorado at Boulder
An out-of-state student from the University of Colorado at Boulder filed a lawsuit against the university in federal court alleging that they should receive a refund because COVID-19 has limited the activities on the university’s campus. Although the university is prorating some of the money back for dormitories, they are currently not reimbursing students for tuition and fees.
University of Connecticut
The parent of an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut, also known as UConn, filed a lawsuit seeking reimbursement for in-person educational services and campus resources that the university failed to provide during the Spring 2020 semester. The complaint alleges that UConn’s classes are “a shadow of what they once were” noting that certain programs, including music, theater, nursing, and the sciences have been hit particularly hard.
University of Florida
A University of Florida student is leading a class action suit aimed at the university’s Board of Trustees. The complaint seeks tuition reimbursement due to “an entirely different learning experience” as a result of remote arrangements. The complaint further claims that the value of a degree from UF is now “diminished” due to the pass/fail grading structure of online classes.
University of Kansas
Two students have filed lawsuits against the University of Kansas demanding refunds for campus dining fees as well as other costs associated with campus on-campus living. According to the complaints, the university has refused to refund any campus-related fees for the time after students were sent home, and it has instead issued credits for various expenses.
University of Miami
The University of Miami faces a class action lawsuit seeking refunds for “tuition fees and other costs” paid for the Spring 2020 semester. As a result of suspending in-person classes, the complaint alleges the class members are owed the, “costs of opportunities and services that can only be made available to students while the students are physically present on campus.”
University of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania faces a class action lawsuit filed by an undergraduate student. The suit seeks prorated refunds for tuition and other fees in light of the university suspending in-person classes mid-March. The complaint alleges that online learning is, “not commensurate with the same classes being taught in person,” and has diminished the value of a UPenn degree.
University of Pittsburgh
Two University of Pittsburgh students have brought a class action lawsuit against the university seeking tuition and mandatory fee refunds for the 35 days of virtual classes. The university has issued partial refunds for housing and dining payments, however, the lawsuit claims this does not account for the “ materially deficient and insufficient alternative” instruction via remote learning.
University of Southern California
A student has filed a class action lawsuit against the University of Southern California. The suit seeks partial refunds for tuition and other fees, claiming USC’s breach of contract for their lack of full performance due to campus closure. By demanding full tuition and fees, the complaint alleges that “ USC is unjustly enriching itself,” at its students’ expense. This is the third lawsuit against USC— similar class actions were also filed by an anonymous undergraduate student and by a social work graduate student.
University of Tampa
The parents of a nursing student at the University of Tampa filed a lawsuit against the university alleging that the university “has not delivered the educational services, facilities, access and/or opportunities that Plaintiff and the putative class contracted and paid for,” since it closed its doors during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, the lawsuit notes that the University of Tampa’s nursing program relies heavily on in-person instruction and access to facilities, which were not available during the period of remote learning.
An anonymous student has filed a proposed class action lawsuit against Vanderbilt University alleging the school has failed to provide its students the resources and services they paid for. According to the complaint, Vanderbilt refused to refund any tuition costs and has offered only minimal adjustments for housing and meal plans to select students who meet certain criteria. Vanderbilt is not providing any reimbursement for students who left campus on March 30 or later. This lawsuit comes on the heels of Vanderbilt receiving $2.8 million via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Washington University in St. Louis
A Washington University undergraduate student filed a class action lawsuit against the university seeking tuition refunds, among other damages. The suit alleges that students have received subpar academic instruction since the school transitioned to online classes in March. The complaint also highlights that the university has received over $22 million in federal aid from the CARES Act, yet it has declined to refund any student payments.