More college students suing for tuition refunds, as some schools refuse reimbursement

Students Sue Colleges for Tuition Refunds

More college students suing for tuition refunds, as some schools refuse reimbursement

  • Students are suing colleges for tuition refunds after campuses shut down nationwide.
  • Students and families point to financial hardships and the lower quality of online education.
  • Colleges have not agreed to refunds and insist the quality of education remains the same.

College students across the U.S. are asking for their money back. In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced campuses to close, schools acted quickly to move courses and student resources online.

Now some students are saying their online educational experiences have not merited full-priced, on-campus tuition.

Students have filed class-action lawsuits against more than 25 colleges for partial refunds on tuition and campus fees, as well as damages.

The lawsuits target prestigious private universities and big state schools and claim to represent thousands of students, and more lawsuits could be on the horizon.

Legal firms say there's a surge of inquiries from students and families who want refunds.

The class actions don't quarrel with colleges' decisions to close; instead, they take issue with the diminished quality of education.

Students point to canceled classes, programs, and projects; the loss of campus perks paid for by student fees; and a decline in course quality.

Colleges stand behind the quality of their online offerings and say that students are earning the same credits.

Thousands of students from more than 25 colleges are involved in a class-action lawsuit asking for tuition refunds plus damages.

Thousands of students are taking legal action, and even more have launched petitions asking for lowered tuition or partial reimbursement for this year's winter and spring quarters. Students at the University of Chicago signed a letter saying they will not pay spring tuition, due at the end of April, unless the school cuts tuition in half for the remainder of the crisis.

Many students and families are not in the financial position to pay full tuition. Meanwhile, many colleges are not in the financial position to shoulder additional revenue loss.

Colleges are hurting more than ever due to the financial costs associated with closing campuses, transitioning to online education, and canceling sports events. Two small colleges are closing permanently. Even Harvard, the wealthiest college in the country, was forced to make budget cuts.

A few schools have offered discounts for summer term, and some may freeze tuition for the coming academic year. But with potentially lower enrollment numbers and reduced state funding, college tuition at many institutions could instead go up.

Student Lawsuits Claim Online Education Falls Short

The class-action lawsuits claim that colleges are unjustly benefiting from federal bailout money and the tuition and fees students paid for services they aren't receiving. The primary service provided by a college is a quality education, and many students going from traditional classrooms to online instruction have been underwhelmed.

The majority of students’ tuition money goes to paying faculty and staff, who are still serving students from a distance.

Students are also missing out on campus perks, such as the ability to access recreational facilities and labs, conferences and research projects, and networking opportunities. Attorneys representing college students say the intangible aspects of campus support higher tuition costs, too.

Colleges, for their part, say that federal funds are funneled to students as financial aid and that the amount dispensed amongst schools covers only a small portion of their anticipated loss. Furthermore, the majority of tuition goes toward paying faculty and staff, who are still serving students from a distance.

While online courses can be substantially less expensive than on-campus courses, this is not always the case. Some colleges charge the same per-credit amount for online and in-person courses; at others, the online cost per credit is actually higher.

Producing online courses can be profitable for colleges over time. Once established, a large number of students can enroll in a class without increasing operating costs appreciably.

However, initially producing digital course content is expensive and time-consuming. In addition to investing in online educational resources, schools are paying to make other services, academic counseling and health clinic appointments, available online.

Higher Education in Financial Straits Before COVID-19

Even without the pandemic, higher education would be struggling financially. Moody's, an investor rating service, changed the financial outlook for the higher education sector from stable to negative for 2020. The report was issued in December 2019 — before COVID-19 was first reported and well before the pandemic prompted campuses to close.

Higher education has been anticipating an enrollment cliff around 2030. Coronavirus could accelerate this downward trend.

Without campus life, some students and families are unwilling to pay on-campus tuition rates. But lowering rates, let alone returning funds, would be hard for many colleges.

Brick-and-mortar colleges rely on tuition fees for at least 30% of their income, and some depend on this funding source even more heavily. Small, private, relatively nonselective colleges — often with religious ties or a specific mission — typically rely on tuition most, which makes them particularly vulnerable to changes in enrollment.

Higher education has anticipated a serious drop in student numbers, i.e., an enrollment cliff, when the number of college-age individuals dramatically drops around 2030. Colleges that stand to be most impacted by the enrollment cliff — regional, four-year schools — also stand to be heavily impacted by COVID-19.

Amidst layoffs, furloughs, and school closings, colleges are also wondering who will show up in the fall. In a survey of 300 high school seniors conducted by QuatroMoney and TuitionFit, over 25% of respondents were rethinking college decisions due to the coronavirus outbreak, showing a new preference for staying closer to home or studying online.

Colleges Say Students Won't Get Tuition Money Back

Colleges and universities are not on board with issuing tuition refunds, according to school spokespeople. Some colleges, including those in the California State University system, are considering partial reimbursement for room and board, but not tuition.

Unused housing and dining plans are one thing, but returning tuition paid for completed or nearly completed courses is another. Colleges acknowledge that the student experience has dramatically changed, but say credits and degrees are still being earned and the same professors are teaching classes.

In attempts to replace lost campus resources, schools have provided online academic support and telehealth. In many cases, instructional and operational costs have ramped up.

[I]ssuing refunds for the finished and half-finished winter and spring terms would require massive rewrites to school policy.

Many colleges lack the resources to give students refunds. Issuing a refund changes in a student's perceived quality of their education is against typical school policy. Usually, refunds are only issued to students who withdraw on schedule. The tuition for graded courses cannot be reimbursed, and colleges contend that dissatisfaction with a course is not a valid reason to return funds.

Colleges have been updating education policies since March, when the U.S. Department of Education advised postsecondary institutions that calendar, credit, and financial aid rules would be relaxed. However, issuing refunds for the finished and half-finished winter and spring terms would require massive rewrites to school policy.

For now, college spokespeople say colleges won't pay.

Increased Investment in Online Learning

While many students claim that distance learning is a poor substitute for classroom learning, their current online education experience was an improvised solution.

Some educators say that the classes students have been taking this winter and spring don't even qualify as online education — they were in-person classes put online in an emergency. This may be an important distinction. With a summer to prepare a richer digital experience, online courses may improve in quality by the fall.

However, the major complaints of students unaccustomed to online education — little interaction with students or professors, no synchronous learning, and reliance on recorded videos — need to be focus points for online educators going forward.

Last Updated: May 11, 2020


Coronavirus Refund of College Tuition and Fees

More college students suing for tuition refunds, as some schools refuse reimbursement

Dreyer Boyajian LLP has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute seeking a partial refund of tuition and fees previously paid for an on-campus education that is now being provided online.

While some schools are considering tuition discounts, many other institutions of higher learning have flat-out refused.

In fact, some schools are slashing student financial aid and scholarships but charging the same tuition for an education now delivered via Zoom.

UPDATE: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s motion to dismiss has been denied by a federal court judge. The lawsuit, of which attorneys at Dreyer Boyajian LLP are a part, seeks reimbursement of tuition and other fees for the loss of in-person learning.

Read the decision by U.S. District Judge David N. Hurd.

We are currently investigating complaints against the following institutions:

  • The Sage Colleges 
  • University of Rochester
  • Hamilton College 
  • Colgate College
  • Skidmore College 
  • Vassar College

If you or a family member is a college student who has paid full price for spring or summer tuition without any refund for enrollment in online classes, please call Dreyer Boyajian LLP at (518) 463-7784 today for a free case review. Our law firm is based in Albany and Saratoga Springs, New York, and we serve clients nationwide.


The class action filed against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, seeks money damages for the university’s response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.

RPI suspended on-campus instruction and closed on-campus facilities. Students were required to complete their spring and summer semesters online.

However, when students requested refunds for the cost of tuition, RPI refused.

The class action lawsuit contends that the school has breached its duty of care and is being unjustly enriched by charging students the same tuition for online classes without the benefit of access to facilities and programs on the university campus. As a result, students have suffered financial losses and reduced value on the services and facilities touted by RPI, including:

  • Loss of opportunity for hands-on learning
  • Loss of access to in-person lectures and events
  • Loss of access to workshops, laboratories, and other on-campus facilities
  • Loss of ability to participate in extracurricular activities
  • Loss of in-person interaction with instructors, administrators, and other students

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has extensively promoted programs that emphasize (and in some cases require) on-campus living and learning. The cost of on-campus instruction, services, and facilities is included in the tuition and other fees students pay.

RPI has now moved to online-only classes and continues to enforce restrictions on on-campus facilities and services. As a consequence, students are receiving education that is of a lower fair market value than what they would enjoy through on-campus and in-person instruction.

We believe that more than 7,000 students may have sustained economic losses and adverse impacts on educational services as a result of RPI’s failure to provide refunds for tuition and other fees.

Do I Have a Case?

Much of the world has been massively impacted by the coronavirus.

To mitigate the risk to students, faculty, and staff, many institutions of higher education have closed their campuses and moved to an online-learning model.

Unfortunately, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute does not appear to be the only university denying students refunds on tuition and fees for the spring and summer semester.

Dreyer Boyajian LLP is currently investigating instances where college and university students are being denied restitution for their financial outlays and the loss of value on their education. Please contact our law firm if:

  • You have received a notice denying your request for a refund
  • You have been notified that your school is not adjusting its fee schedule for the current and upcoming semesters to account for the loss of access to facilities and services
  • You were forced to move on-campus housing with no recompense
  • You have been denied access to services and facilities that are included as part of tuition and other fee payments
  • You are a member of an educational program that has been canceled or modified, and you are not being compensated accordingly

Higher learning institutions stand to make millions from programs that promote on-campus learning and living, as well as services and facilities that differentiate them from competing universities and colleges. Students enthusiastically pay for superior education experiences that enrich their lives and improve their lihood of professional success.

However, when these institutions fail to deliver the promised experience, services, and facilities – even in response to a crisis situation – students should not be required to forfeit the investment they have made in their education.

Contact Dreyer Boyajian LLP Today

The law firm of Dreyer Boyajian LLP has been serving clients throughout the Capital District of New York for over 30 years. Our attorneys have extensive experience in class actions and other complex litigation.

For more information about the class action claim we have filed on behalf of students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute or to discuss your legal options if you have been denied a refund at your university or college, please call (518) 463-7784 or contact us online today. Your initial consultation is free and 100% confidential.


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