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.”