Students are suing their colleges for coronavirus-related refunds

How coronavirus changed college for 14 million students
How coronavirus changed college for 14 million students

As colleges close their doors and move classes online to curtail the spread of coronavirus, students across the country have raised concerns that they are still paying high tuition prices for what is now an online education. In-person lectures and instruction have been swapped for online college programs that often cost less and that many researchers, students and professors believe are less effective and less valuable.

Because the nature of their education has so drastically changed, many students are asking for their money back. 

Now, students at two colleges, Drexel University and the University of Miami, have filed two class-action lawsuits in South Carolina federal court under the representation of South Carolina-based Anastopoulo Law Firm, against their schools in hopes of receiving some kind of reimbursement. 

The suits claim that students have paid for services they're no longer receiving, such as face-to-face interaction with professors, access to campus facilities and hands-on learning, as well as mandatory fees for activities, athletics and wellness programs that they will not be able to participate in. 

The plaintiffs, Adelaide Dixon, who attends the University of Miami in Florida, and Grainger Rickenbaker, who attends Drexel University in Pennsylvania, aim to represent the thousands of students at their schools. 

The University of Miami enrolls some 11,117 undergraduate students and Drexel University enrolls close to 13,490 undergraduates.  

Undergraduate tuition and fees cost about $51,930 at Miami and about $54,516 at Drexel. 

"Although [the universities are] still offering some level of academic instruction via online classes, plaintiff and members of the proposed [classes] have been and will be deprived of the benefits of on-campus learning," said the students in both lawsuits, adding that "the value of any degree issued on the basis of online or pass/fail classes will be diminished."

"Drexel has not had an opportunity to review the complaint and as a general policy does not comment on matters in litigation," said a representative for the school in a statement sent to CNBC Make It.

"The University of Miami continues to be committed to the health and safety of our community, providing a robust online learning environment, and proactively working with all of our students and their families to make it through this difficult time and for all of us to emerge stronger in the future," Jacqueline Menendez, vice president of communications for the University of Miami tells CNBC Make It in a statement. "The University is aware of the court filing and we will continue to monitor the situation. At this time, the University will not have any further comment since this involves pending litigation." 

A general view of the Miami Hurricanes logo
Mark Brown/Getty Images

Dixon and Grainger are not alone in their grievances. CNBC Make It has spoken with over a dozen college students who have expressed wishes to have at least some of their funds reimbursed.  

At New York University, over 11,000 students have signed a petition calling for partial tuition refunds. 

"I would like to see a calculation around how much money is being saved by this remote instruction and using that to factor into a kind of refund to give to the students," Aaron Vanek, a junior studying at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts tells CNBC Make It. "That seems like the fairest thing for me."

"There's been a push to lower tuition just because classes are going to be taught online," Robin Fierberg, a senior at Stanford University, tells CNBC Make It. "The university has said the tuition will not change."

"I think it's fair to ask for at least a partial refund on classes," Olivia Bornstein, a junior at Boston University tells CNBC Make It. "Just considering the like, huge shock in quality."

Isabella Borshoff, a graduate student from Australia earning a master's degree in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, tells CNBC Make It that while she feels torn on the issue, these concerns are shared by some graduate students as well.

Earning a master's "is not just about what you're learning in class, but it's about meeting new people and being in a community and engaging with faculty and guest speakers and conferences — and all of that's obviously gone now," she says.

"You're not just paying to have your course delivered, you're paying for a whole experience, and suddenly you're doing a course that in the dark moments can just feel like, I could've just done this on edX at home," says Borshoff, referencing the free online learning platform. "Why am I paying all this money?"

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