Pandemic-related lawsuits seeking college refunds making slow progress

Pandemic-related lawsuits seeking college refunds making slow progress

When the coronavirus pandemic prompted colleges and universities to shut their doors last spring and send students home for virtual learning, many families cried foul and fought back in the courts.

More than 200 lawsuits have been filed by students and their parents demanding a refund of at least part of their tuition, room and board, and other fees. The common thread in these suits: The education they paid for was not the education they got.

As one California Polytechnic University student reportedly said, “I’m not paying full price for YouTube University.”

Over the past year, several suits have been dismissed and most of the others continue to slowly work their way through the courts.

But earlier this month, parents scored a courtroom victory in a Florida class-action case involving fees collected by Miami-Dade College, when a judge refused a motion to have the complaint against Miami Dade College dismissed. The judge’s ruling could have broader implications regarding similar suits around the country.

“We have great empathy for everyone affected by (the pandemic), including the schools, but this order would apply to millions of students who have already paid these exact…charges” at many other colleges across the country,” said Adam Moskowitz, the attorney who handled the class action case.

Moskowitz said he will file similar cases seeking class action status on behalf of students who attend other schools in Florida. The ruling against Miami-Dade has been appealed.

In many cases, colleges offered refunds for room and board and meal plans that were paid for but went unused because of the pandemic. However, some schools refused to offer tuition refunds because of their own financial struggles.

Generally speaking, some schools argued that they didn’t have “contracts” with the students, and therefore reimbursement for room and board and user fees were not necessary.

The court cases can be divided into two types of lawsuits. One is for COVID-19-related tuition reimbursement; the others are asking for room and board, or fees refunds, for such things as lab supplies, athletics passes, and transportation.

The tuition lawsuits face an “uphill battle,” said Mark Kantrowitz, a college financing expert and president of Cerebly Inc. “That’s because most colleges did not have a different tuition rate for online education, even if they had an online education program prior to the pandemic.”

However, Kantrowitz said, the cases seeking reimbursement for room and board and fees “are more likely to be successful. For example, housing agreements do not provide for removal from the dorms in the event of a pandemic,” he said. The only reason usually given is for “conduct reasons.”

“Since the housing agreements were drafted by the colleges, that omission will be held against them,” Kantrowitz said.

To patch that leak, some colleges amended their housing agreements for the current 2020-2021 academic year to address removal for COVID-19 reasons, he said.

Meanwhile, these continue to be anxious times for college students. In a January survey of more than 1,000 students by CollegeFinance.com, about 46% said they were attending classes in person, while 54% were attending virtually.

And to no one’s surprise, about 60% of both virtual and in-person learners rated their current stress levels as “high” or “extremely high.”