Students across the United States have been instructed to leave their campuses, move out of their dormitories, and begin taking classes online as their institutions attempt to implement social distancing guidelines to fight the threat of the novel coronavirus. That has put the remainder of the spring 2020 semester in a lurch, and students understandably feel displaced and lost as the COVID-19 pandemic dismantled the life they once knew. Now, some of those students are suing their schools for a refund.
Students and parents from all three of Arizona’s public universities — the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, and Northern Arizona University — filed a class-action lawsuit on March 27 against the Arizona Board of Regents after the schools refused to refund room, board, and campus fees to students who had to leave school because of COVID-19. On April 8, students at the University of Miami filed a class-action lawsuit after paying for in-person courses at a higher rate and then being forced to take courses online, while students at Drexel University sued their school and demanded tuition refunds. On April 9, students from Michigan State University filed a suit against their school, and students at Columbia University and Pace University filed suits on April 23 in an effort to earn back financial reimbursement, too.
While each lawsuit differs in specificity and claims — with asks ranging from prorated refunds for housing to refunds on tuition and on-campuses services — all of the suits claim that students paid for far more than they received due to the spread of COVID-19 that forced them off of campus and away from classes.
One lawsuit, from Liberty University in Virginia, is already making its way to federal court, after the universities’ president Jerry Falwell Jr. announced on March 23 that students would have to return to campus to take their courses online, despite Virginia’s ban on gatherings of 10 or more people.
“I think we have a responsibility to our students — who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here — to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board they’ve already paid for and to not interrupt their college life,” Falwell Jr. told the Richmond Times-Dispatch at the time.
One of the students at the prominent Christian university sued the school on April 13 in response, demanding a larger refund for student services fees and claiming that the school refused to properly refund students for their fees that will go unused — fees for on-campus services and activities, primarily. Students were originally offered a $1,000 credit if they didn’t want to return to campus in the fall, Forbes reported, but the lawsuit alleges that this is a “mere fraction” of what the school should be paying, according to POLITICO. Furthermore, the suit claims that those who won’t return to school in the fall, excluding graduating students, won’t receive the refund despite the fact that students had to take their classes online for the remainder of the spring semester too, according to CNN.
“Liberty University is, in a very real sense, profiting from the COVID-19 pandemic — keeping its campus and campus services ‘open’ as a pretext to retain Plaintiff’s and the other Class members’ room, board, and campus fees, despite no longer having to incur the full cost of providing those services, all the while putting students’ finances and health at risk,” the lawsuit alleged, according to POLITICO.
In response, a spokesman for Liberty University issued a statement saying that it was not them, but the students and their attorneys who were attempting to “profit from a public health crisis,” CNN reported.
“Each of Liberty's changes in operations and modes of delivery has been required by governmental officials, a fact the complaint omits,” the statement said, according to CNN. “That fact legally excuses Liberty's adjustments and leaves the plaintiffs without a legal case.”
While it’s unclear how any judges will respond to these suits, many schools might be waiting for money from Congress provided in the CARES Act, Forbes reported. Among other benefits, the $2 trillion stimulus bill will provide $6 billion to colleges and universities, some of which can be used for whatever the school sees fit. But those funds are imperfect at best, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is fighting to ensure that undocumented students and non-permanent residents won’t be able to receive benefits or assistance from the bill despite the bill saying nothing about students' documentation status.