Students at Long Island University, Columbia University and Pace University are suing their schools to refund part of their tuition and fees after coronavirus forced their classes to move online for the rest of the semester.
The federal lawsuits, which seek class action status, say that students who enrolled in in-person classes should get refunds for at least part of the spring semester because they are not getting the education and services for which they paid.
Online learning options “are subpar in practically every aspect, including the lack of facilities, materials, and access to faculty,” according to the LIU lawsuit, filed by undergraduate student Nicolas Irizarry.
“The remote learning options are in no way the equivalent of the in-person education that Plaintiff and the putative class members contracted and paid for,” the LIU lawsuit said.
Like most universities around the country, LIU, Columbia and Pace moved to online classes in March, about halfway through the semester, as tests showed COVID-19 was starting to become prevalent in the United States. Columbia and Pace encouraged all students to move off-campus while LIU is allowing students to remain in their residence halls, according to their websites.
Tuition at the schools range from about $37,000 to $60,000 a year, excluding room, board and other fees, according to their websites.
Columbia and Pace are offering some refunds on fees and housing, with housing refunds ranging from $1,200 to $2,000, according to their websites. Columbia undergrads pay between $8,718 and $9,872 a year for campus housing while Pace's room and board for its New York City campus is $20,146 a year.
But the Pace lawsuit said the "planned refund is both completely arbitrary and wholly inadequate." It covers only about 20% of plaintiff Xaviera Marbury's $9,380 rent while she was able to live there for only half the semester, it said.
The lawsuits allege that the schools are improperly retaining money paid for the spring semester and are breaching their contracts with students. The suits against Pace and Columbia, where the semester’s classes are offered pass/fail, say online classes and a less stringent grading system diminish the value of the plaintiffs' degrees.
Pace spokeswoman Marie Boster said that while university officials have not yet been served with the lawsuit, they continue to provide academic programs and services online, including mental health counseling, and are adjusting housing fees for students who had to leave residences.
"Pace University, like other colleges and universities across the globe, was forced to quickly adjust to the effect of a pandemic on our institution," Boster said in a statement. "The faculty, staff and leaders of Pace continue to work tirelessly to support our students during this challenging time."
Columbia spokeswoman Caroline Adelman said, “We have no comment on this pending litigation.”
An LIU representative declined to comment on pending litigation.
Marbury's lawsuit noted that the U.S. CARES Act will give colleges $14 billion, of which about $6.3 billion will go to students for financial help.
Pace plans to use those funds to support students once they are available, Boster said.
LIU’s website does not mention refunds on its coronavirus webpage. In the next academic year, LIU tuition will be $37,182 a year, room and board will be about $14,664 a year, and standard fees are $1,954, according to its website.
The three schools with New York City campuses have sizable endowments, according to their most recent financial reports. Columbia had the largest of the three in 2019 at nearly $11 billion while LIU had around $230 million and Pace had $182 million.