“Georgetown University law students have asked administrators to either reduce tuition or return to in-person learning after a recent decision to go remote for the entire campus,” reports The College Fix. Other colleges have ignored such requests, leading to lawsuits against them. For example, a judge in Massachusetts ruled that a lawsuit against Stonehill College for a partial refund could go forward after it shut down in-person learning due to the coronavirus, because online teaching isn’t worth as much as being taught in class.
On December 30, the Conservative and Libertarian Student Association criticized University President John DeGioia’s decision to shut down in-person classes and instead teach students only online until at least January 30.
“We ask President DeGioia and the Law Center’s Dean [William] Treanor to re-implement in-person learning for the spring semester,” the students said in their letter. “If the school moves forward with its plan for mandatory virtual learning, we call for an appropriate reduction in tuition to account for the compromised semester.”
“This decision does not follow the current recommendations of public health officials and defies common-sense principles,” said students. They wrote that the new omicron variant of COVID “does not warrant a move to virtual instruction.” Moreover, Georgetown did not provide a “discernible metric” for when in-person classes could resume.
The students’ letter noted that every student has been fully vaccinated and boosted, unless they obtained one of the school’s “illusive exemptions.” Two of the students, Elana Quint and Luke Bunting, were on Fox News last week discussing their objections to the school’s closure to in-person learning.
Judges have reached different conclusions about whether students can sue for a partial refund, depending on what their college has said to them about its educational processes and benefits, and depending on the judges’ own willingness to treat college handbooks and promotional materials as binding contracts or not.
In Moran v. Stonehill College, a Massachusetts state judge allowed a college to be sued for a partial refund. She reasoned, “[As to the] university’s … argument that any breach resulting from the transition to online teaching was de minimis because the student still earned credits toward a diploma: ‘This is kind of like purchasing a Cadillac at full price and receiving an Oldsmobile. Although both are fine vehicles, surely it is no consolation to the Cadillac buyer that the ‘Olds’ can also go from Point A to Point B.’”
In Chong v. Northeastern University, C.A. No. 1:20-10844-RGS (D.Mass. Oct. 1, 2020), a federal judge in Massachusetts dismissed, without prejudice, the plaintiff students’ breach of contract claim seeking partial reimbursement of tuition to compensate for the inferiority of online instruction, holding that the “plaintiffs fail to state a claim because they have not plausibly established that the parties’ agreement included a right to in-person instruction.” The judge also allowed dismissed the plaintiffs’ breach of contract claim related to a student activity fee, student center fee, and undergraduate student fee because those fees were imposed to “support” (rather than to gain access to) certain facilities during terms for which students are enrolled in classes, but refused to dismiss the breach of contract claim related to a campus recreation fee because payment of that fee gave students the option to gain admission to home athletic events and use fitness facilities.
A federal judge reached a different result in In re Boston University COVID-19 Refund Litigation, denying Boston University’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff students’ breach of contract claims premised on the failure to provide in-person instruction and the closure of on-campus facilities and resources. He rejected the argument that the plaintiffs failed to articulate any legal basis for a contractual right to in-person instruction, pointing to the plaintiffs’ allegation that representations in the defendant’s course registration materials implied that they would receive traditional, in-person instruction at physical locations on campus.
The judge said he could not conclude, as a matter of law, “that no student could have reasonably expected that paying the tuition charged for the Spring semester of 2020 and registering for on-campus courses would entitle them to in-person instruction,” and noted that he “need[ed] the benefit of further factual development of the contractual claims to resolve the issue on the merits.” The judge reached the same result with respect to the plaintiffs’ claims for reimbursement of fees, explaining, “the court cannot say, as a matter of law, that plaintiffs could not have reasonably expected that their payment of mandatory fees would grant them access to at least some of the on-campus facilities and resources shut down by BU on March 22, 2020.” See also Salerno v. Florida S. College (2020) (denying motion to dismiss breach of contract claim based on defendant’s closure of campus and transition to online classes due to pandemic where defendant’s publications clearly implied in-person instruction and touted its many on-campus resources and facilities); Milanov v. University of Michigan (2020) (denying motion for summary disposition on plaintiffs’ breach of contract claims seeking reimbursement of pro rata portion of amounts paid for in-person instruction, housing, meals, and student activities following closure of campus and transition to allegedly inferior online instruction due to pandemic).
When colleges have historically provided both online and in-person instruction, and charged less for online instruction, students who signed up for in-person instruction have tended to win partial refunds when they were relegated to online instruction due to the coronavirus. See, e.g., Rosado v. Barry University (2020) (denying motion to dismiss breach of contract claim based on defendant’s closure of campus and transition to online classes due to pandemic where defendant charged more for on-campus instruction than online instruction, and defendant’s publications clearly implied in-person instruction and touted its many on-campus resources and facilities).