New York’s Columbia University and its board of trustees have been hit with separate proposed class action lawsuits filed by students who say they’re owed refunds for the Spring 2020 semester shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The suits say that while the Ivy League institution did the right thing by closing its campus and transitioning to online academics, Columbia has either refused to refund tuition and fees or has offered “inadequate or arbitrary reimbursement” that falls short of properly repaying proposed class members. According to the lawsuits, Columbia owes refunds in light of the fact that it has not provided the services—such as in-person instruction, room and board, access to campus facilities, extra-curricular activities and networking and mentorship opportunities, among others—for which tuition and fees have already been paid.
One case, filed by two named plaintiffs, alleges that while Columbia still offers some level of academic instruction online, students have been and will be deprived of the benefits of on-campus learning due to the school’s COVID-19 closure. Moreover, the lawsuit says that any degrees issued on the basis of online classes, which Columbia announced on March 20 would be graded as pass/fail, will be “diminished” for the rest of a student’s life.
The other complaint, filed by a pseudonymous student, adds that Columbia may be eligible to receive federal stimulus money under the CARES Act, which directs roughly $14 billion to colleges and universities based on enrollment. The CARES Act requires schools to use at least half of the funds to provide emergency financial aid grants to students for expenses linked to COVID-19 disruptions, according to the suit.
The same lawsuit says Columbia students as early as March 12 rolled out a Change.org petition calling on the school to issue refunds given concerns about the “reduction of educational quality” for online learning and the “negative professional impacts of reduced networking opportunities and cancelled campus events.”
“These realities notwithstanding, Defendant has refused and continues to refuse to offer any refund whatsoever with respect to the tuition that has already been paid,” the suit asserts.