Tuition Lawsuits Question Value of Online vs. In-Person Education

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As colleges across the country scramble to figure out how their fall semesters will look in response to COVID-19, some are also dealing with student lawsuits asking for a partial reimbursement of tuition and fees paid for the past spring semester. While recognizing the need for safety, the lawsuits argue that online instruction is not worth the same as the in-person classes that students paid for. In the coming months, this debate over online vs. live instruction will play out in courts as well as on campuses.

“We’re not disparaging the schools for closing. They did what was appropriate,” said Milberg Phillips Grossman LLP senior counsel Jennifer Kraus-Czeisler. “But they’re profiting at the expense of students. It just seems unconscionable.”

Suits Claim Students Not Offered Adequate Refunds

Students at dozens of colleges have filed class action lawsuits demanding refunds for tuition and fees after their schools closed campuses and moved to remote instruction during the coronavirus pandemic. Milberg Phillips Grossman is representing students in multiple class actions. The firm has filed tuition and fee lawsuits, in addition to tuition, room, board, and fee lawsuits.

A typical tuition and fee lawsuit filed by Milberg against Ferris State University states that, “The University’s decision to transition to online classes and to cancel campus activities were responsible decisions to make, but it is unfair and unlawful for the University to retain full tuition and fees and to refuse to reduce any outstanding charges, effectively passing the losses on to the students and their families.”

The lawsuit demands refunds and a reduction in outstanding charges representing the difference in value of a half semester of live in-person instruction versus the value of a half semester of online distance learning. It alleges breach of contract and unjust enrichment.

At the heart of Milberg’s tuition and fee lawsuits is the claim that online learning is not commensurate with classes taught in person. A student who signed a petition calling on Purdue University to provide partial spring semester tuition reimbursement wrote, “I could take online classes and stay at home for so much less, but I chose Purdue. I want (some) of my money back.”

“If I wanted online classes I would have gone to University of Phoenix,” commented a Michigan State University student on a similar petition.

“I feel it is unfair, especially since money is tight for many people right now,” said a Western Michigan University student.

Proving Student Claims

The key to tuition and fee lawsuits will be whether students can prove that online courses are worth less than in-person instruction. They draw on a large body of evidence to support their claim.

In court filings, Milberg cites findings from a 2017 study by Eric Betting and Susanna Loeb of the Brookings Institute. According to Betting and Loeb, the promises of online courses are “far from fully realized.”

They use data from DeVry University comparing DeVry’s online and in-person courses. The results are telling and provide evidence that students learn less in the online setting. Among the findings are that taking courses online:

  • Increases students’ likelihood of dropping out and otherwise impedes progress through college
  • Reduces student grades by 0.44 points on the traditional four-point grading scale
  • Reduces a student’s GPA the following term by 0.15 points
  • Increases the probability that the student will drop out of school

The Brookings study concludes that the “results are in line with prior studies of online education in other settings such as community colleges and highly competitive four-year institutions that also show that online courses yield worse average outcomes than in-person courses.”

In addition to the value of live in-person instruction, students are more successful academically and otherwise when living in university residence halls. “The truth of the matter is that campus housing provides a great deal of return to the students who chose to live in the residence halls,” said Beth McCuskey, Vice Provost for Student Life, Purdue University, in an article for The Conversation. “This has been demonstrated through multiple studies over multiple years.”

Several studies have demonstrated that living in a residence hall had a positive impact on degree attainment and that on-campus students were more likely to stay in school and graduate than commuter students. “The data are very clear,” writes Adam Weinberg, the president of Denison University. “The impact of higher education increases dramatically when students are enrolled in a college that engages them in a robust campus life program, especially in a college where they live on campus and are constantly interacting with a range of people and ideas.”

“Students are not getting the full value of their tuition because they are not experiencing on-campus college life and all of the attendant resources,” Milberg’s Kraus-Czeisler told Campus Reform. “[Students] are merely using online learning tools rather than in-class lectures and labs, in direct contradiction as to what they contracted for.”

Higher Ed Communities Brace for New Normal

While the tuition and fee lawsuits from Spring 2020 semester play out, students and colleges are also looking ahead to Fall 2020.

The California State University system has already announced that it will conduct a majority of its classes online this fall because of the coronavirus. However, UC is currently in the minority. Around 70% of colleges are planning for an in-person fall semester, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education. Just 8% say they’re planning for online learning, while 5% are proposing a hybrid model.

In New Jersey, colleges are considering three options depending on how many coronavirus cases are recorded and how well the state is positioned to respond to virus challenges. They will open their campuses fully, hold classes online, or offer a hybrid of remote and in-person teaching. New Jersey legislators are also considering a bill that would give students a 25% refund of the tuition and fees they paid for the spring semester that moved online.

Larry P. Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, a private school in Michigan, said in a video message that keeping campus closed in fall hadn’t occurred to them. “This is what we do. We’ve been doing it for 175 years. We are going to keep doing it,” said Arnn.

Early signs suggest that college enrollment will dip significantly for the upcoming semester. And it’s not just health and financial concerns that might keep students away.

“I know there’ve been some students that have already withdrawn from next year because they’re worried about not getting the same type of on-campus experience that they wanted,” the founder and managing editor of College Consensus told CNBC.

Milberg Phillips Grossman LLP is representing students from Purdue University, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, Western Michigan University, Central Michigan University, Lake Superior State University, The University of Toledo, Northern Michigan University, Ferris State University, and Ohio State University. To discuss a possible claim, please Contact Us.