Shut Out of In-person Learning by the Pandemic, College Students are Suing to Get Back Their Tuition
Photo credit: Tia O'Donnell
When colleges transitioned to online classes during the worst of the Pandemic, students had no choice but to take all their classes online. Now that the pandemic has abated, some of these students are filing lawsuits against their colleges, claiming that they were entitled to in-person instruction. These students want at least some portion of their tuition reimbursed, and some schools are starting to comply.
From Brandeis to The Big 10
Brandeis University, Northwestern, and several other colleges have been the subject of lawsuits by students seeking reimbursement.
Two graduate students, one in the film program and another working on a PhD in neuroscience, sued Brandeis University – accusing it of “False Advertising” and “Breach of Contract”, arguing that they had been promised an enriching experience that included in-person classes and access to campus resources like laboratories.
Northwestern University was sued by two undergraduate students who said they were promised small class sizes, rigorous coursework, and opportunities to engage with their professors in person. The plaintiffs argue that Northwestern should have known about the risks associated with coronavirus and made different decisions about how to proceed with the fall semester.
Many of these lawsuits are premised on the theory that there existed an implied contractual right to in-person education. In their defense, some schools have relied on the contract law doctrines of "impossibility" or "frustration of purpose”. The outcomes are difficult to predict because the cases are fact-specific, with key factors including what the colleges specifically promised, and, since contract law varies by state, where the college is located.
Suits against Northeastern and Harvard failed, but other suits look more promising as student-plaintiffs have chalked up victories in the early stages of litigation.
In California, for example, a court found that the University of La Verne made an implied contract with students for in-person education. Its ruling was based in part on promotional materials sent to admitted students that invited them to a designated ‘visitor’s weekend’ where they could "tour the campus", explore the dining hall, and stay overnight in the dorm. These materials also remarked on the school’s beautiful, welcoming campus for the students to call home.
A suit brought by a group of Chicago students against Loyola University was originally dismissed by the trial judge as a case of “educational malpractice”—a claim not legally recognized under Illinois law. The case was revived by a 2 to 1 vote by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals which found that a promise of in-person instruction could be inferred from the fact that students who enrolled in a traditional on-campus program paid higher tuition than their online counterparts. A different court reached a similar conclusion in a case against George Washington University
These lawsuits illustrate the potential legal trouble that colleges and universities face if they are not able to deliver on the promises they made to students about their education. Don’t be surprised to see more lawsuits filed as students continue to feel disappointed and cheated out of their college experience. Some of those disgruntled students will want their tuition money back, and they may be willing to take legal action to get it.
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