Proposed class action lawsuits filed this month against Princeton University and the University of San Diego assert that the schools owe tuition and fee refunds for the Spring 2020 semester, during which the So-Cal institution and private New Jersey Ivy League member were forced to transition in-person campus life and learning online due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The two breach-of-contract lawsuits against USD, filed on November 5 and 13 in California’s Southern District, allege the university has shifted the financial burden onto tuition and fee payers despite its inability or failure to provide the services and facilities for which students were billed.
The case against Princeton, filed November 19 in New Jersey federal court, argues the university’s trustees have “unlawfully and unjustly” retained tuition and fees—costs “easily amount[ing] to thousands of dollars per student”—despite not providing or being unable to provide the services and facilities for which proposed class members bargained.
“While Defendants may not bear culpability for the campus closures or the inability to provide any classroom instruction, neither do the enrolled students,” one case against USD contends. “Yet, while Defendants have used the current COVID-19 shutdown circumstances to excuse their duty to perform fully the obligations of their bargain with their students, Defendants continues [sic] to demand that all students fully perform their contractual bargain to pay in full all tuition and fees without any reduction for Defendants’ lack of full performance.”
The lawsuit alleges the performance being provided by USD and its campus facilities amid the COVID-19 crisis is “different from and of a lesser value than what was bargained for” upon proposed class members’ enrollment.
According to the case against Princeton, the school does not bear the culpability for its campus closures or inability to provide in-person instruction yet has “used the current COVID-19 shutdown circumstances to excuse its duty to perform fully the obligations of its bargain with students,” who the plaintiff says have been saddled with “mounting debt as a result of having to pay tuition and fees for services they are not receiving and facilities and services that are not being provided.”
USD announced on March 12, 2020 that classes would be canceled for one week, starting around March 14, the case filed on November 13 says. Per the suit, the school was to implement online-only distance learning on or around March 23.
On March 9, Princeton directed all faculty to move all lectures, precepts and seminars to online methods by March 23, for a period of at least two weeks, coinciding with a state of emergency, public health emergency and aggressive social distancing measures announced by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on March 16, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuits against USD each emphasize that the online education being provided by the school amid the pandemic is “inadequate” and “subpar” in comparison to the in-person learning for which students paid. As one suit tells it, USD’s online learning options are “sub-par in practically every aspect” as some programs during the Spring 2020 semester relied on previously recorded lectures to be viewed through Zoom meetings. Further, the Pass-Fail standard implemented by USD to close out the semester “provides educational leniency” that students would not otherwise have received with in-person letter grading, the suit says.