“Are you a college student who was forced to leave campus? You may be entitled to compensation,” a notice on collegerefund2020.com announces.
The website was created by a law firm currently capitalizing on the growing anger and activism by students -- and indignant parents, too -- who believe they're owed partial tuition and fee refunds for semesters cut short, courses moved online and off-campus, and unused housing and meal plans, among other disruptions that occurred at colleges and universities across the country in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The advertisement by the Anastopoulo Law Firm, which has offices throughout South Carolina, appears to have struck a chord. It is currently representing students in three class action lawsuits filed in the last two weeks against Drexel University, University of Miami and the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado, as calls from students for tuition and fee refunds grow stronger.
The lawsuits claim that online classes don't have equal value to in-person classes and are not worth the tuition that students paid for on-campus classes. The lawsuits also contend that the decision by these institutions to use pass/fail grading systems this semester have diminished the value of the degrees they offer. The lawsuits claim they represent thousands of students enrolled at the universities.
Separate class action lawsuits against the Arizona Board of Regents and Liberty University were filed on behalf of students that attend one of the three institutions in the Arizona university system or the Christian liberal arts university in Lynchburg, Va. The lawsuits claim students paid various fees -- recreation, health services, room and board, and meal plans -- for resources they did not use after college administrators shut down campuses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Students demanded universities return any "unused" fees, "proportionate to the amount of time that remained in the spring 2020 semester when classes moved online," according to the Arizona lawsuit.
Liberty, which allowed students to return to campus following the university's spring break, is providing $1,000 to students who moved out of its campus residence halls, according to a university spokesman. The lawsuit against Liberty is “without merit,” the university said in a written statement.
“While it’s not surprising that plaintiff class action attorneys would seek to profit from a public health crisis, we don’t believe this law firm or its single client speaks for the vast majority of our students,” the statement said. “Similar class-action suits are pending against other schools, and such claims will no doubt be made against other higher education institutions that changed how they operate and deliver services to students in the face of COVID-19.”
The five universities named in the lawsuits are committing "breach of contract" and receiving “unjust enrichment” from tuition and fee payments that won’t go toward services that benefit students, according to the lawsuits. The universities have failed to deliver on promises of in-person instruction and campus life, which the University of Miami touts as “a world of interaction with other students” and Drexel promotes as “experiential learning,” according to the lawsuits filed in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, Charleston division. Grainger Rickenbaker, who attends Drexel, and Adelaide Dixon, a student at Miami, both live in South Carolina, and did not reply to requests for comment sent through Facebook.
Roy Willey IV, a lawyer with the Anastopoulo Law Firm, said in an email that the firm is investigating “dozens” of other potential cases across the country where students claim colleges owe them refunds. The firm created collegerefund2020.com because it is receiving numerous inquiries for legal representation, he said.
“This is a national problem where colleges and universities with endowments in the hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars are passing the entire burden of the pandemic onto students and their families,” Willey wrote. “That is not fair, it is not right, and they should be held accountable.”
He pointed to the significant price differences between some online and in-person classes as examples of the lower costs of providing online instruction. For example, he noted that tuition for Drexel’s online bachelor’s degree program in business administration is 40 percent less than the rate for the on-campus program.
An updated version of the Arizona lawsuit filed on April 15 names eight students. An anonymous student filed the Liberty lawsuit. Matt Miller, an attorney whose firm is representing Liberty and Arizona students, said the anonymous Liberty student is worried about retaliation from officials for speaking out against the university.
The anonymous student said Liberty’s response to the pandemic is “irresponsible and dangerous” because it offered students the choice to return to residence halls, Miller explained in an email.
Liberty and Arizona’s coronavirus responses were unique among others because they made the “same bad decision” to leave campuses open and left it up to students to decide whether to return, Miller said. Students at the universities Miller is representing are not seeking reimbursement for tuition, rather, they want refunds of any unused fees for on-campus services. He said it is “indefensible” for universities to hold on to fees for services which they are not providing.
“The cases that we have filed, these are not meant to be punitive to the schools,” Miller said. “People have paid for something and you’re not providing it in a very clear way … Colleges are already really expensive. Families are taking on massive debt or pour their life savings into going to college.”
Northern Arizona University, which is part of the state system, says in its coronavirus response posted on the university's website that students who moved off campus by April 16 will receive a 25 percent refund for spring housing and meal plans. A spokesman for Arizona State University said a $1,500 credit will be applied for “eligible” students who moved out of on-campus housing by April 15, but housing remains open and some resources are still being provided, such as telehealth for medical and counseling services. A spokesperson for the Arizona Board of Regents did not respond to a request for comment.
Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel for the American Council on Education, said while it’s reasonable for students to ask whether they’re getting what they paid for, institutions are also facing financial hardship due to the pandemic. The assumption of "unjust enrichment claims" -- that colleges are saving money by not having students on campus -- is inaccurate, said McDonough, who is the former counsel to Princeton University.
“There’s no way schools are saving a boatload of money now that they’ve sent students home for the remainder of the year,” McDonough said. “A typical college’s expenses weigh heavily toward paying faculty and staff. I hope we appreciate that schools are trying to carry, the best they can, their employees, and particularly the ones that are most economically challenged.”
Colorado faculty members at the system’s four campuses have been working hard to ensure online coursework has the “same academic rigor and high quality” as it did before the pandemic, said Ken McConnellogue, vice president for communication for the system’s president. Colorado and other universities have stressed that students will continue to receive academic credit for their courses taken this semester.
“It’s disappointing that people feel compelled to sue amid a global pandemic, barely a month after we moved to remote teaching to protect the health and safety of students, faculty and staff,” McConnellogue said.
McDonough said he could not predict whether the current lawsuits might prompt more students to seek refunds through legal channels.
“I frankly hope that we don’t have to play all of that out,” McDonough said. “I hope that students and their families will have a look back and [feel] appreciation for everything institutions did do to help them through this.”