College Students Want Their Money Back. It’ll Be Tough to Get It.

By: - June 2, 2020 12:00 am

A woman wears a graduation gown in the middle of an empty street at the University of Kansas, after the university canceled in-person classes and went to remote learning. Some students are suing their colleges, saying the online experience is inferior to in-person learning. Charlie Reidel/The Associated Press

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The coronavirus left Grainger Rickenbaker, a 21-year-old Drexel University student and hockey goalie, without in-person lectures, seminars or labs as the school switched to remote learning.

So he sued.

Rickenbaker is suing the Philadelphia university for the pro-rated price of his tuition, saying he didn’t get what he paid for. His lawsuit is one of at least 100 closure-related suits filed against colleges and universities in federal and state courts.

In total, more than 2,000 pandemic-related lawsuits against a variety of businesses, groups and officials had been filed by the end of May, according to the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, which has been tracking the cases. Many involve plaintiffs seeking compensation for what the pandemic has taken, as well as taking aim at governments and politicians for their restrictive orders.

Some legal experts say cases such as Rickenbaker’s will be tough to win.

Experienced lawyers and professors say signing up for college may or may not constitute a legal contract. Education has been ongoing, albeit in a new format. The cost to the college of providing that education remotely may be more, or less, depending on how it’s calculated.

The atmosphere of the college or university campus, while a selling point, may or may not be an integral part of the education that the institution provides.

Sam Hodge Jr., a legal studies professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business also in Philadelphia, said the schools have three defenses against such lawsuits. They can argue that the pandemic has made it impossible to fulfill the contract; they can say they mitigated the damage by providing online instruction; and they can point out that they have had to continue to pay salaries and other expenses.

Moreover, he said, a contract can be superseded by an unforeseen occurrence of nature — most contracts have a “force majeure,” or “act of God” clause — and COVID-19 appears to qualify.

“Most students got most of the semester in the same way they got the rest of their education; now they are all getting the credits they were promised toward their degree,” said Nashville attorney Audrey Anderson, a former in-house counsel for Vanderbilt University who is now in private practice. She suggested since the students are getting their credits and education, they have not been deprived.

“Think of it like going to a restaurant and you are used to the ambiance being a certain way. And there’s a fire next door that interrupts your meal before dessert. Are you going to ask for your money back? They would say, ‘We’ve got to close the restaurant now, but here’s your dessert to go.’”

Rickenbaker, the Drexel hockey player, said in a Facebook message to Stateline that he wasn’t able to talk about the case to reporters. But Roy Willey, a class-action attorney with the Anastopoulo Law Firm who represents Rickenbaker and many other students in a class action, said the cases are about basic fairness.

“Colleges and universities are not unlike any other business in America, and they too have to tighten their belts during this unprecedented time,” he said in an email. “They are not any more entitled to keep money for services they are not delivering than the mom and pop bakery on Main Street.”

Drexel refunded room and board for the spring semester, which began in April (the school is on the quarter system), but not tuition. The suit estimates that Drexel’s tuition reimbursement could be million, plus the ,405 in fees that Rickenbaker and others paid, plus damages.

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.