Stressed US colleges face rising demand for tuition cuts

Lawyers hired by students reject institutional pleas of financial duress

May 4, 2020
A wide view of the campus lawn at Columbia University during the coronavirus pandemic on April 14, 2020 in New York City.
Source: Getty

US college students are stepping up demands for partial tuition refunds for the spring semester, with a growing number pursuing legal action against institutions they accuse of overstating virus-related financial losses.

The students have filed lawsuits against more than a dozen universities, in some cases citing the institutions’ own data showing they had been charging existing online students far less for the same courses.

Aided by a handful of law firms, the students are pursuing elite private institutions as well as smaller public schools, in some cases citing their own advertised rates for online versions of their in-person classes.

“Every business in America is having to tighten its belt,” said Roy Willey, a lawyer with the Anastopoulo Law Firm in South Carolina that has already sued at least 15 colleges and is considering taking action against dozens more. “And the only question is whether colleges and universities should be any different.”

The universities are generally refraining from commenting on their own individual legal cases, but higher education leaders have repeatedly emphasised the financial losses being suffered across academia because of the need to suddenly shut down their campuses and send students home to avoid spreading Covid-19.

Congress so far has approved $14 billion (£11 billion) in emergency aid for universities and their students, and higher education lobbyists have said the true need is many times that.

Many US colleges have already refunded shares of room and board charges for the spring semester, at a budgetary hit that their main lobby group, the American Council on Education (ACE), has estimated at $8 billion.

Their additional losses involve revenue drops in such areas as hotels and conference centres, sports leagues and bookstores, said Terry Hartle, the ACE’s senior vice-president for government and public affairs.

“Even things as obscure as parking provide money that helps underwrite the cost of running colleges and universities,” Dr Hartle warned. “Those funds have completely disappeared.”

Universities are warning that even deeper losses await in the months ahead, as the nation’s surging unemployment rates translate into deep governmental budget cuts and students unwilling or unable to return to their campuses in the fall.

Mr Willey, however, discounted the idea that the shutdowns are necessarily expensive for US colleges. “I haven’t seen any evidence of that,” he said.

“I don’t know how you could be in financial trouble when you take in the same amount of money, provide less services and access, and then refuse to refund the money, and then receive tens of millions of dollars from the federal stimulus programme on top of it,” Mr Willey said. “I don’t see anywhere in corporate America where we would call that a loss.”

His firm has already filed lawsuits on behalf of students against Boston, Cornell, Columbia, Drexel and Pace universities; Manhattan College; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Colorado Boulder; the University of Miami; and at least four members of the University of North Carolina system − UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Asheville, UNC-Wilmington and East Carolina University.

“We’re adding to it every day,” Mr Willey said. “We’ve got over 100 under investigation right now.”

He said his firm has a team that is assessing requests from students based on factors that include the institution’s wealth, the total amount they’ve already refunded in non-tuition charges, the relative price of their online tuition and the ability of students to pay.

The firm’s assessment of which universities to sue, Mr Willey said, amounts to: “Where are they on the scale of fairness?”

As an example, he said, Manhattan College has begun advertising a 30 per cent reduction in summer tuition but has not given its spring students any comparative discount. Drexel, he said, has advertised on its website that its regular online courses cost 40 per cent less than its in-person versions.

“Clearly, Drexel thinks it’s 40 per cent less valuable,” Mr Willey said.

A Drexel spokeswoman, Niki Gianakaris, said the university has no comment on the lawsuit. She said, however, that Drexel has given priority to community health and safety while teaching classes remotely.

Several other universities offered similar responses and warned they couldn’t discount tuition for the fall either.

In addition to the lawsuits, students at numerous other colleges and universities in the US and Canada have initiated online petitions requesting partial tuition refunds from their institutions.

But even advocates of college affordability said they recognise the very severe financial challenges now confronting institutions.

Students are understandably upset by their lost in-person experiences, said Jessica Thompson, director of policy and planning at the Institute for College Access and Success. But the cost pressures for colleges are real, she said, and governments ultimately need to help bridge the gap.

“I suspect significant discounts” on tuition, she said, “would require backfilling from policymakers if we wanted to avoid potential long-term effects on quality”.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: US students up the ante over tuition cuts

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