A proposed class action looks to recover tuition and fee refunds for Duke University students in light of the COVID-19 crisis having cut short the Spring 2020 semester.
Filed against the Board of Trustees of Duke University, the 18-page lawsuit argues more than 16,500 undergraduate and graduate students did not receive their bargained-for education and access to services and facilities once the North Carolina school, one of the most expensive private institutions in the country, suspended all on-campus classes on March 10, 2020.
Despite the university’s acknowledgment of the “significant disruption” to the overall college experience amid the transition to online learning, Duke has failed to refund a prorated portion of tuition and fees, the complaint says, claiming students are owed reimbursement for unused services and the “decreased value” of the education received after the transition from an in-person to an online learning environment.
“Duke’s post-COVID-19 online student offerings do not even come close to comparing with Duke’s in-person course experiences,” the lawsuit reads. “Instead, Plaintiff and Class members have been forced into overpriced bubble-gum and duct-tape substitutes.”
According to the case, Duke extended its undergraduate spring break from March 15 to 22, and students who were off campus were advised not to return if possible. Those who needed to return were required to register with Student Affairs so Duke could manage the on-campus population, the suit says.
While Duke President Vincent E. Price advised that residential students would receive a prorated reimbursement of unused housing and dining fees, neither guidance nor refund offers were extended for any portion of tuition or fees, the case claims. Compounding students’ frustrations is the fact that Duke was eligible for, but declined to accept, $6.7 million in federal funding through the CARES Act, the complaint says, noting that the money was intended for students in need of emergency financial assistance.
Highlighted in the case is Duke’s promise that those who enroll will be “surrounded by some of the world’s brightest minds” and afforded the opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary exploration and collaboration. Moreover, Duke, in its marketing materials, touts its study spaces, classrooms equipped with the latest technology and research facilities in addition to a community connection between students and faculty, the suit says.
“Because of the high-quality, hands-on, and proven academic opportunities that it advertises, and on-campus experiences and services it guarantees, Defendant has charged substantial tuition and fees for a Duke education,” the complaint reads.
The plaintiff, a grad student, argues that although President Price acknowledged the school was engaged in “what may be the greatest experiment in our university’s history” due to the COVID-19 crisis, the issues that came with the transition to online learning bred concerns about the school’s handling of the situation and quality of the academic environment presented to students therein. From the suit:
“It is not at all clear that Duke is getting its experiment right. Duke professors were advised to modify course syllabi and simplify assignments in order to accommodate remote teaching. Professors were provided links to learn on the fly how to use Zoom software for classes. Many professors have simply pre-recorded lectures and posted them online. But according to Duke professors, recorded lectures are like ‘speaking into dead space,’ and even ‘live’ Zoom classes are like ‘talking to a wall of black boxes’ because many students have their computers’ camera turned off.”
As the plaintiff tells it, the “haphazard approach” with which Duke pivoted to online learning amid the pandemic has led students to receive “a second-rate online substitute for the hands-on, in-person coursework in which they enrolled—and for which they paid.” The lawsuit contends Duke’s online classes “are not equivalent to, and are worse than,” the in-person experience for which tuition and fees were paid.
The case against Duke is far from the first filed amid the COVID-19 crisis in search of tuition and/or fee refunds for students subjected to online learning.
ClassAction.org’s coverage of COVID-19 litigation can be found here and over on our Newswire.