A coronavirus tuition refund lawsuit moves forward

Dive Brief:

  • A federal judge ruled that students at a private New York university can move forward with their lawsuit seeking tuition reimbursement for the spring and summer semesters after the coronavirus shut down the campus. 

  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute promised students a specific type of learning experience and may have reneged on that pledge, U.S. District Court Judge David Hurd wrote in an opinion last month. 

  • The case against RPI is one of many lawsuits pursuing tuition refunds filed during the pandemic. 

Dive Insight:

Campuses abruptly shuttered and classes flipped online as the virus spread throughout the U.S. last spring. Though many institutions returned students’ room and board money, only a few decided to refund tuition, spawning more than 100 lawsuits as of early June, according to one tally

Though the lawsuits differed by institution, they generally had a common thread: 

Colleges purported to offer a certain campus experience — including face-to-face classes and extracurricular activities — and were alleged to have breached their contract with students and families by eliminating those opportunities. The lawsuits sought to return tuition money, with those suing claiming they shouldn’t have to pay the usual rates even if courses were delivered digitally.

The case against RPI, brought by three undergraduates, makes a similar argument. In court documents, they drew attention to programming that emphasizes real-world work experiences and requires them to be on campus. 

Hurd agreed that the students might succeed in court and so allowed the case to go to the discovery phase, in which both parties gather more information to be used in the case.

RPI in court filings characterized its academic framework as aspirational ideas rather than promises. But Hurd wrote in the opinion that the university “made some bold claims—or, plausibly, promises—about its in-person programming and hammered repeatedly on the benefits of those programs in an assortment of circulars and even in its catalog.”

An RPI spokesperson declined to comment on the litigation Tuesday.

Legal experts have expressed skepticism that students and families would win these lawsuits, despite their explosion in visibility and popularity. 

Audrey Anderson, counsel with law firm Bass, Berry & Sims and former general counsel for Vanderbilt University, expects some lawsuits similar to RPI’s would move into the discovery phase. This would be expensive for some institutions, however, and could prompt them to settle for a sum lower than the cost to litigate, Anderson said.

The breach-of-contract cases that would proceed, she predicted, are those against big residential colleges that advertised the strength of their on-campus programs.

Anderson wasn’t surprised the court didn’t immediately rule in RPI‘s favor. The university made major assertions about its programs and the judge wanted to know more about the materials used to market them, she said.

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