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Students (and their parents) shell out tens of thousands of dollars a year for the college experience at America's elite public and private universities.
But all of it — the classroom lectures, the campus organizations, the parties, the life lessons — came to a screeching halt due to the coronavirus pandemic. In a flash, students everywhere went home to finish out the semester via online classes.
That change is not sitting well with all those young adults now trapped at home with their parents again. At least 25 universities across the country are now facing lawsuits from students arguing that their tuition and all the other expenses pays for much more than college credits.
At the heart of nearly every lawsuit is the contention by students that the online learning experience does not compare to campus life, which means colleges need to return all of that money.
A freshman at Drexel University said that he felt "diminished" by an experience that doesn't compare to in-person learning.
In a lawsuit against the University of California system, a student argues that "Some professors are uploading pre-recorded lectures where students do not have a chance to interact, and some professors are simply uploading assignments with no video instruction at all."
The lead plaintiff in a $50 million class-action lawsuit against Northeastern University argues that distance learning is "inferior" for his master's degree in counseling psychology, because accreditation standards require in-person interaction.
Other elite universities — including Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Purdue, and the University of Colorado — are also facing lawsuits.
Instead of filing a lawsuit, a group of University of Chicago students took more drastic action, holding a tuition strike last week. The group of students is demanding a 50% reduction and waiving of fees, which together can total more than $78,000 a year.
While the university announced that it would waive room-and-board fees for the spring semester, that is not enough for the students. However, the university argues that tuition fees fund the university's operations, and without them, the university would have to make tough reductions in staffing and programs.
The University of Chicago's argument is essentially what every university facing a lawsuit is saying: without your tuition, things will get a whole lot worse for the higher education system.
But what about the argument that online courses are inferior to in-person learning? Lawyers representing students contend that differences in pre-pandemic tuition price for in-person vs. distance learning proves that there is a difference in quality.
But the colleges argue that they are still fulfilling their mission: You pay your tuition to take classes and earn credits that go toward your degree. If that is the case, then many of these cases may not get very far in court.
The universities also say that they need more time and patience. Closures came on suddenly, and everyone, including administrators and professors, are learning how to navigate this new normal, and they had to create learning programs on the fly. It will be interesting to see what fall 2020 semesters look like if students must continue to stay away from campuses.