Schooled Reporting on education

Lawsuits threaten post-pandemic longevity of colleges

Education | Students demand refunds for lost in-person instruction
by Laura Edghill
Posted 5/06/20, 06:14 pm

Grainger Rickenbaker wants his money back. Dissatisfied with how his college is handling its closure because of the coronavirus, the 21-year-old student filed a lawsuit against Drexel University last month, claiming his online classes at the Philadelphia school are a poor substitute for the classroom learning he paid for before the pandemic.

“You just feel a little bit diminished,” said Rickenbaker of Charleston, S.C. “It’s just not the same experience I would be getting if I was at the campus.”

He’s not the only one who feels that way.

Schools hastily assembled online classes as public health concerns shut down campuses in mid-March. Students say their colleges are in breach of contract for not providing services covered by tuition and fees. A growing number have filed lawsuits against more than 25 colleges and universities in the past month. The defendants include elite schools such as Brown, Columbia, and Cornell universities, as well as large public institutions such as Michigan State University and the University of Colorado Boulder.

The plaintiffs in a suit against the University of California system claim that some professors aren’t even providing video instruction for their online classes. A group of Vanderbilt University students said the quality and academic rigor of their courses decreased significantly after the transition to distance learning. A senior engineering student at Purdue University said the school’s closure prevented him from completing his final project: building an airplane.

The details vary, but the lawsuits fall into two basic categories: One group seeks a refund of fees covering unused on-campus amenities like recreation facilities, dorms, and cafeterias, while the other group wants schools to reduce tuition.

Plaintiff groups in the first category have filed class-action lawsuits, including one against Arizona’s three public universities and another against Liberty University. The Christian school in Lynchburg, Va., endured public criticism for allowing some students to return to campus after Virginia banned gatherings of more than 100 people. A university spokesman called the lawsuit baseless and said Liberty was offering $1,000 to students who moved out of campus housing. The school noted that no student staying on campus has tested positive for COVID-19.

In the second category of lawsuits, students claim the instruction delivered online differs from what they paid for. Attorney Roy Willey IV represents Rickenbaker in the case against Drexel, and he points out that tuition for the school’s online business administration degree is 40 percent cheaper than its on-campus version.

“The colleges and universities sell in-person, on-campus, experiential education—that is what these students bought and paid for,” Willey said. “These students could have opted for a virtual campus or online degree, but they did not.”

Not everyone is turning to lawsuits. About 200 students at the pricey University of Chicago are engaging in a tuition strike. They refuse to pay spring quarter bills until the school waives certain fees and cuts tuition by 50 percent.

Many of the colleges claim they’re doing the best they can.

“It’s different, no doubt. And it’s not ideal,” University of Colorado Boulder spokesman Ken McConnellogue said. “We all would prefer to have students on our campuses, but at the same time, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic here.”

Colleges and universities also are wary of making financial concessions in the face of an uncertain future that could gut their on-campus programs beyond repair. They say instructional costs have not changed much as they continue to pay faculty salaries and benefits. New expenses incurred from the upheaval are straining budgets, as well.

Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Seminary and Boyce College (and a WORLD board member), said declining on-campus enrollment already threatened many institutions of higher education before the pandemic. “Any wise [university] president has known for years that changes are coming, and the wisest were leading their schools through change and adjustment,” he said. “COVID-19 is a bomb set in the midst of those plans, and it has detonated.”

For some colleges, that could lead to permanent closure. For the students suing for refunds, their concerns are more about the here and now.

“The case is about basic fairness,” Willey said. “The suit simply asks that the students be refunded for the difference in the amount between what they paid and what they have received.”

Associated Press/Photo by Matt Volz (file) Associated Press/Photo by Matt Volz (file) Willow Creek School in Montana

Back to school?

President Donald Trump last week encouraged governors to consider reopening schools before the end of the academic year in June.

“I think you’ll see a lot of schools open up even if it’s for a very short period of time,” the president said. “I know that there are some governors that aren’t necessarily ready to open up states, but they may be ready to open up the school systems.”

Opening schools would make it easier for millions of parents to return to work. But so far, only Montana has plans to do so anytime soon. The sprawling state as of Wednesday afternoon has 456 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 16 deaths, and 417 recoveries in a population of more than 1 million. Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, on April 22 issued an economic reopening plan that allowed schools to restart on Thursday but left the final decision up to local officials. Schools that choose to stay closed can finish the academic year online.

Most states plan to keep schools shuttered through June. Administrators are planning for what education will look like come August or September. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines remain under development but could encourage placing desks 6 feet apart, eating lunches in classrooms instead of cafeterias, and making playgrounds off-limits—all of which would present serious challenges.

“Everybody wants to have the kids back,” said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “Sooner or later, schools will have to reopen. The question is how.” —L.E.

Associated Press/Photo by Tony Dejak Associated Press/Photo by Tony Dejak A Kent State University professor rings the school’s Victory Bell on Monday in remembrance of the victims of the deadly clash between the Ohio National Guard and students in 1970.

Remembering ‘Four dead in Ohio’

Monday marked the 50th anniversary of a deadly confrontation between unarmed college demonstrators and the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University.

In early May 1970, a demonstration on the Kent, Ohio, campus against President Richard Nixon’s decision to send troops into Cambodia resulted in a clash between students and local police, which left the campus ROTC building destroyed. The Ohio National Guard began to patrol the campus in response to the violence.

The simmering tension exploded on May 4, when National Guardsmen opened fire on a group of students gathered for an anti-war rally on the campus commons, killing four of the demonstrators. The school temporarily closed in the ensuing chaos. A nationwide student strike followed and briefly shuttered about 900 college campuses.

Kent State officials scrapped plans for this year’s elaborate, multiday commemoration since the campus is closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. It offered several virtual events and online resources instead. —L.E.

Books on trial

A school board in Alaska found itself embroiled in controversy after voting 5-2 in late April to remove five classic books from the Anchorage-area district’s elective English class reading list. The Matanuska-Susitna Board of Education determined the sexual references, descriptions of rape, and other content in books like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings were too provocative for teenagers.

A letter from the National Coalition Against Censorship pressed the district to reconsider, calling the move “educationally misguided” and “disrespectful of teachers’ competence.”

One of the dissenting board members requested the item be reconsidered at the school board’s next meeting on Wednesday, this time including time for public comment. The board will then vote on whether to rescind its previous decision. —L.E.

Joy calling

Teenagers in Calgary, Alberta, decided to cheer up fellow residents who might be feeling a little down during their coronavirus quarantine. The Joy 4 All Project offers a toll-free number that anyone feeling lonely can call to hear a cheerful or funny recorded message.

“These are jokes, poems, and messages of positivity,” project coordinator Katie Mahon told CNN. “This is content generated by children and youth to connect with seniors and those that feel isolated to create a feeling of connection.”

It seems to be working. The line received more than 1,800 calls in its first week of operation. The teen team continues to solicit fresh submissions from children and youth through its website and social media. —L.E.

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Laura Edghill

Laura is an education correspondent for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and serves as the communications director for her church. Laura resides with her husband and three sons in Clinton Township, Mich. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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