College is absurdly expensive. While some of the mark up comes from the schools’ reputations, much of the price tag is in exchange for the experience. Access to professors, relationships with classmates, and academic, athletic, artistic, religious, and social activities and groups are all a major part of both the “college experience” and the education itself. These aspects, and their associated benefits, are lost when classes are moved to Zoom, or worse, prerecorded lectures. Further, college campuses provide resources for students which are lacking at home, including quiet study locations and access to comprehensive libraries.
While many schools acknowledged the need to refund students for the portion of their on-campus dorms and meal plans unused, many believe that tuition should be likewise discounted, for the commensurate drop in quality and failure to deliver the promised experience.
And since schools themselves aren’t offering the financial credit, students at various universities, including Columbia, Cornell, Drexel, Georgetown, Liberty, UC Berkeley, Michigan State, Vanderbilt, and others, are banding together in class action lawsuits. The students are suing on three counts: breach of contract, conversion, and unjust enrichment.
The breach of contract suit contests that, by closing on-campus activities, the schools have not delivered the contracted service, and thereby are not entitled to the full tuition payment.
Conversion is an intentional tort in which one party uses another’s property, money, or service and uses it as if it belongs to them. Unlike breach of contract or unjust enrichment, conversion is always done knowingly and with intent. In the case of the current suit, that which has been impeded is the right to use campus facilities and receive an in-person education.
Unjust enrichment is typically awarded when no contract exists between parties, or when the contract is invalid, but an agreement was in place and broken. The burden of proof is on the plaintiff, who must show that one party (in this case the university) has received a benefit (tuition money) without fulfilling their requisite agreement (a full campus experience).
The basis of these claims is that the schools have kept the students money in bad faith, as they did not provide the contracted for resources and experience. Therefore, the suit contests that the students are due some of their tuition back.
When students sign over their high tuition payments each semester, they are paying their contractually obligated amount in exchange for full campus access, classes, and activities. As the schools were forced to close due to health concerns, they were unable to provide the services for which the students paid.
The colleges’ only real defense against these suits is if the enrollment contracts contain a force majeure clause, allowing for breach should an unforeseeable act of God prevent the school from fulfilling their end of the bargain. The American Bar recognizes the pandemic as a legitimate force majeure, which could spell death for the lawsuits.
Universities ought to have proactively provided students with a partial tuition refund, rather than wait to be sued for it. The online experience is not commensurate with the education promised and contracted for by students, and the costs should reflect this reality.
College is so much more than just the lectures, assignments, and exams, and the schools are aware of this. Admissions departments sell students on the clubs they’ll join, the relationships they’ll develop with their teachers and classmates, the academic resources, the networking, and the plurality of personal and academic growth that occurs both in and out of the classroom. The schools should acknowledge these changes, and discount the semester accordingly.