Education is doubtlessly a valuable commodity, which is likely why college students pay so much for it each year. The average college tuition in the United States in for the 2019-2020 school year was $41,426 at private colleges, $11,260 for state residents at public colleges and $27,120 for out-of-state students at state schools, according to data reported to U.S. News and World Report.
As student debt figures have climbed over that last several decades — approaching nearly $1.5 trillion on last count — debates have flourished on the topic of whether paying such inflated sums for higher education was actually “worth it” in monetary terms for student borrowers who run the risk of paying off that education for the rest of their lives. But that debate has taken a very unexpected turn in the era of COVID-19.
Students like Drexel University’s Grainger Rickenbaker are forcefully arguing that at least this year it wasn’t worth it. He argues that in in moving all classes online and depriving him of in-person lectures or labs that he paid for, the school failed to provide what he paid for and owes him a refund. The university disagreed, so he sued.
Specifically, Rickenbaker is requesting the court order the university to refund him the prorated price of his tuition. His case is far from the only one. U.S. students have filed more than 100 closure-related lawsuits demanding their money back, saying remote higher education isn’t worth the five figures a year that many pay.
Will they win?
Legal experts say the situation isn’t clear, and that students looking for refunds face a steep uphill battle. First of all, it’s unclear students have a contractual claim on a failure to provide services, since schools pivoted toward providing education remotely, which entails costs that tuition money covers.
Moreover, experts note that while on-campus environment and a “collegial atmosphere” might be a selling point that universities promote marketing materials, judges might not consider that an integral part of what universities provide.
Sam Hodge Jr., a legal studies professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Philadelphia, told The Pew Charitable Trusts that institutions of higher education have three defenses against student lawsuits: the pandemic made it physically impossible to fulfill the contract; the damage to students’ education was mitigated as much as possible by online instruction; University expenses like salaries for staff, have not changed during the pandemic, and that a large share of tuition price supports those costs.
“Think of it like going to a restaurant and you are used to the ambiance being a certain way, [but] there’s a fire next door that interrupts your meal before dessert,” Nashville attorney Audrey Anderson said. “Are you going to ask for your money back? They would say, ‘We’ve got to close the restaurant now, but here’s your dessert to go.’”
But some lawyers believe there are fundamental questions of fairness in terms of what schools are providing students who paid high tuitions but are receiving reduced versions of school.
“Colleges and universities are not unlike any other business in America, and they too have to tighten their belts during this unprecedented time,” said Roy Willey, a class-action attorney with the Anastopoulo Law Firm. “They are not any more entitled to keep money for services they are not delivering than the mom-and-pop bakery on Main Street.”
Universities have offered some refunds so far. Drexel, for example, returned some of the room and board fees it had charged students for the spring semester.
But returning students’ entire spring-semester tuition at a pro-rated price cost the university approximately $5 million, according to experts.
The university has offered no direct comment on the suit, but did in a statement highlight the services it has continued to make available to its students.
“Despite the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, students continue to have access to Drexel’s broad spectrum of academic offerings and support, building on the University’s long-standing tradition of innovation and creativity in the classroom and remote environments,” a university spokeswoman said.
Tuition refunds have been a firm point of refusal for many colleges and universities nationwide, although few have offered direct public comment on the matter.
Suits against schools note the addition of online learning, but argue that on-campus learning experiences —particularly labs work for science majors — can’t be transmitted by Zoom.
One highest-profile case against New York University focuses on the loss of the “city as a classroom” experience, arguing that so far as NYU presents its locations as an asset to students, its loss should count against what student pay to be there.
“Online classes are particularly ineffective and inadequate for musical theater majors, who cannot participate in required performances, receive in-person feedback/critique, or partake in the facilities necessary to perform,” noted a suit for a partial refund of tuition filed by Christina Rynasko of Palm Beach, Fla., whose daughter Emily studies musical theater at NYU.
In an email to Stateline, NYU spokesman John Beckman noted that the suit is “unwarranted and ill-advised. The reality is that in the face of an unprecedented, world-altering pandemic … faculty continue to teach, and continue to be fully paid; students continue to have class with their faculty; student work is evaluated; academic credit is appropriately awarded; and students will graduate.”
In the face of tuition-refund requests, some have noted that larger schools with endowments measured in the billions are better positioned to offer refunds than smaller schools that are reliant on tuition to fund their offerings. However, high-endowment schools note that those funds are tightly controlled in terms on how they can be spent.
But even if universities can manage to hold onto spring 2020’s tuition payments, that could come at the cost of the collecting for fall 2020. Universities might not be legally obligated to hand back tuition that their student-consumers have already paid, but students who didn’t exactly find remote learning equal to a regular college semester might be unwilling to pay full tuition going forward. Many, like Alexa Edwards, a 20-year-old attending Western Oregon University, are considering taking a gap year because they’re less than enthused by more Zoom-enabled learning.
“I never would have thought about taking a year off, that’s one thing I didn’t want to do,” Edwards told MarketWatch. “But that might be an option.”
And a slightly more attractive one now that her father has been laid off and the cost of college is weighing more heavily on her mind than ever. Taking a year off and hopefully finding a way to work and save some money feels like a more attractive option than paying full tuition for courses that could wind up online, Edwards noted.
She’s not giving up on her higher education, but holding out of the experience she wanted instead of an ersatz digitized version of it.
“Living with people and being around other people, it teaches you how to navigate all types of situations and how to navigate them as an adult,” she said. “We’re built for interaction, and so when that’s stripped away it’s really hard to imagine doing school and life without it.”
Lawsuits will determine if colleges and universities are the types of businesses that can be compelled to hand back refunds to those whose experiences they had to dramatically change after charging them. But students next fall decide whether to hand over funds in the first place, it’s still to be determined how willingly they will do so when they run the risk of paying full price for remote learning.
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