They wanted the campus experience, but their colleges sent them home to learn online during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, students at more than 25 U.S. universities are filing lawsuits against their schools demanding partial refunds on tuition and campus fees, saying they're not getting the caliber of education they were promised.
The suits reflect students' growing frustration with online classes that schools scrambled to create as the coronavirus forced campuses across the nation to close last month. The suits say students should pay lower rates for the portion of the term that was offered online, arguing that the quality of instruction is far below the classroom experience.
Colleges, though, reject the idea that refunds are in order. Students are learning from the same professors who teach on campus, officials have said, and they're still earning credits toward their degrees. Schools insist that, after being forced to close by their states, they're still offering students a quality education.
Grainger Rickenbaker, a freshman who filed a class-action lawsuit against Drexel University in Philadelphia, said the online classes he's been taking are poor substitutes for classroom learning. There's little interaction with students or professors, he said, and some classes are being taught almost entirely through recorded videos, with no live lecture or discussion.
"You just feel a little bit diminished," said Rickenbaker, 21, of Charleston, South Carolina. "It's just not the same experience I would be getting if I was at the campus."
Other students report similar experiences elsewhere. A complaint against the University of California, Berkeley, says some professors are simply uploading assignments, with no video instruction at all. A case against Vanderbilt University says class discussion has been stymied and the "quality and academic rigor of courses has significantly decreased."
In a case against Purdue University, a senior engineering student said the closure has prevented him from finishing his senior project, building an airplane. "No online course can simulate the applicable, real-world experience" he hoped to gain from the project, the complaint says.
Class-action lawsuits demanding tuition refunds have been filed against at least 26 colleges, targeting prestigious private universities, including Brown, Columbia and Cornell, along with big public schools, including Michigan State, Purdue and the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Some of the suits draw attention to schools' large financial reserves, saying colleges are unfairly withholding refunds even while they rest on endowments that often surpass $1 billion.
Officials at Drexel University said the school has continued to provide a "broad spectrum of academic offerings and support" while students learn remotely.
Along with tuition, the cases also seek refunds for fees that students paid to access gyms, libraries, labs and other buildings that are now closed. All told, the complaints seek refunds that could add up to several thousand dollars per student at some schools.
The lawsuits ask courts to answer a thorny question that has come to the fore as universities shift classes online: whether there's a difference in value between online instruction and the traditional classroom. Proponents of online education say it can be just as effective, and universities say they've done everything they can to create rigorous online classes in a matter of weeks.
Colleges counter that the coronavirus has put them under sharp financial strain, too. Some estimate that they could lose up to $1 billion this year as they brace for downturns in student enrollment, state funding and research grants. Some have already announced layoffs and furloughs as they work to offset losses.