Columbia, Brown, Penn, Purdue — universities with hallowed traditions, proud alumni and another thing in common: Right now they're being sued by disgruntled students.
The students claim that when campuses shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic, they should have been entitled to more of their money back. And the list of institutions facing such challenges is growing, including private institutions and entire public systems in California, Florida, North Carolina and Arizona.
The cases — now dozens in all — are raising difficult questions about what truly makes a college education valuable.
Several law firms are handling these suits. One of the most prolific is Anastopoulo Law Firm in South Carolina, which specializes in personal injury. The firm has a colorful background: Its founder, Akim Anastopoulo, spent several years known as Judge Extreme Akim on a court television show called Eye for an Eye, where he meted out revenge, not just cash penalties, to losing parties.
His firm has set up a website, CollegeRefund2020.com, to recruit plaintiffs for these suits and has filed more than 30 so far.
When universities across the U.S. shut their doors because of the coronavirus pandemic and sent students home, many did offer partial refunds of dorm and activities fees. But, these lawsuits argue, they should have refunded more, because not only did students lose access to the gym, the dining hall, the in-person networking and parties, but their diplomas will always have an asterisk because they finished their degrees online.
For example, a complaint by a student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says:
"While closing campus and transitioning to online classes was the right thing for Defendants to do, this decision deprived Plaintiff and the other members of the Classes from recognizing the benefits of in-person instruction, access to campus facilities, student activities, and other benefits and services in exchange for which they had already paid fees and tuition."
Few universities have commented publicly on the suits. Pace University spokeswoman Marie Boster told NPR in April: "The faculty, staff and leaders of Pace continue to work tirelessly to support our students during this challenging time." Boster pointed out that not only have educators continued to teach students all their regular courses, but the university is offering tutoring, counseling and other services as well. So, the school argues, tuition dollars are not really going to waste.
Roy T. Willey IV, an attorney at Anastopoulo Law Firm who is overseeing many of the suits, dismisses that claim as "laughable."
"Considering how they market their campus — experiential education and hands-on learning and the diversity on campus that you will avail yourself of if you pay these large tuition bills — it's an interesting position to take now that, 'well, we're able to provide the same thing online anyway.' "
Some universities named in the cases already offer classes online for a lower tuition than they charge in-person students on campus, Willey pointed out.
Deborah Hensler, a law professor at Stanford Law School, told NPR that these cases face an uphill battle in court. "I think these suits are a very long shot."
First of all, she explained, the legal principle of force majeure means that a totally unforeseen event, like an act of God or a global pandemic, tends to void a contract.
Willey counters that most of the students' agreements don't actually include a force majeure clause. And in any case, he adds, these suits are not for outright breach of contract. "The students here are very fair, very reasonable. And they're just asking for the difference between what they pay for and what they receive to come back to them."
Second, Hensler pointed out that when it comes to universities in particular, there's a track record of what's called "judicial deference to academia." Basically, courts often recognize that universities deserve some autonomy when it comes to decisions related to scholarship and education.
And finally, there's the substance of the legal claim itself. Here, Hensley invoked her personal experience as a faculty member who has been teaching online since Stanford University closed its campus. She has been assigning readings, grading papers and holding discussions over video.
"In my personal opinion, I can deliver the same quality of education online as I could in person." But, she said, this might not be true for science students, for example, who need to be in a lab or for dance students who need to share a stage.
Whether these lawsuits succeed or falter, they cast a shadow on the value proposition of college. Will universities going forward be able to charge the same tuition they're accustomed to for semesters that take place partially or entirely online?
A previous version of this digital story referred to Temple University as a private institution. In fact, it is a public research institution.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Columbia, Brown, Vanderbilt, the University of Pennsylvania - all of these institutions have hallowed traditions, proud alumni. And they are all currently being sued by disgruntled students. The students say that when campuses shut down because of the coronavirus, they should have gotten more of their money back. NPR's Anya Kamenetz from the education team has been following the suits. And she joins us now. Hi, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: Just how many of these lawsuits are we talking about?
KAMENETZ: Dozens. And there's more being filed all the time. There is a firm called Anastapoulo Law Firm in South Carolina that has set up a website called collegerefund2020.com to recruit plaintiffs. And they've alone filed about 30 of these suits. Interestingly, the firm's founder, Akim Anastapoulo, used to be a TV judge on a show called "Eye For An Eye." Here's a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EYE FOR AN EYE")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In the court system, justice is not always just. That's why they bring their disputes here. Real people, real problems, real revenge.
MARTIN: Wow. OK. So what's the substance of the suits? What do they claim?
KAMENETZ: So the argument is that online college just doesn't have the same value as in-person. So when these universities shut down, they did offer some refunds, many of them. But these suits argue that, you know, not only did they lose access to their gym and their activities in their dorm, but their diplomas will always have kind of an asterisk because they did part of their degrees online.
MARTIN: What are the universities saying?
KAMENETZ: Well, a few of them have commented publicly so far. I did get a response from Pace University in New York City. And they basically pointed out that not only have they continued to teach their classes online, but they're also offering tutoring and counseling and other services. So tuition dollars really are not going to waste.
MARTIN: So do these suits have a chance?
KAMENETZ: Well, I reached out to Deborah Hensler. She's a scholar of class action and a professor at Stanford University Law School. And she said she thinks they're a very long shot.
MARTIN: How come?
KAMENETZ: Well, three big reasons. One is force majeure. So basically, any kind of great, unforeseen event like a global pandemic tends to void any kind of contract. The second principle, interestingly, there's sort of a track record of what's called judicial deference to academia, which basically means that universities get some leeway in courts when it comes to decisions related to education. And finally, you know, there's the substance of the legal claim itself. And Hensler was drawing on her own experience here. She's not giving legal advice. But she said, you know, since Stanford closed its campus, she's been offering her classes online. And she feels like, basically, the quality is almost just as good.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Anya Kamenetz from our education team, who will no doubt be following the upshot of these suits. Thank you so much.
KAMENETZ: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.