Universities ‘feeding at the public trough’ Find Themselves At The Center Of COVID Lawsuits

Riley Heath was gearing up to graduate from Princeton University when he received an unexpected notification from his school saying he needed to vacate the campus within a week. He wasn’t the only one at his school and it was one of the first of many American universities to close its campus before the end of the semester amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The FitzRandolph Gate, where students traditionally walk through only after graduating from Princeton, was closed when Heath was leaving his campus alone with his belongings in tow. He manually kicked open the gate to exit and walked through leaving his college career behind. He told me it was a symbolic moment of the abrupt end of his four years that was anything but pomp and circumstance.

Heath and his peers are finishing their semesters of classes via Zoom video conferencing, which he described as “painful” and a format that “doesn’t compare” to in person learning.

“The discussion is so flat because you don’t know when to talk because you don’t want to talk over people.” Heath said, “So everyone just kind of ends up sitting there looking at each other while the preceptor just asks questions, which is just like honestly a little painful.”

Heath, however, is the example of so many college students across the country who are trying to adapt to a new method of learning, which they say isn’t what they paid for. That argument has become a sticking point for several recent class action lawsuits in which students are asking universities to provide partial tuition refunds.

The University of Miami in Florida and Drexel University in Pennsylvania are facing similar suits from students arguing that online programs offered by colleges are typically significantly cheaper than in person programs. Moreover, the students are saying that the university ‘breached’ their contracts with them and engaged in “unjust enrichment” from tuition that was collected but unused to better the students’ experiences.

The firm representing these students has created collegerefund2020.com because of the  influx of inquiries they have received amid the coronavirus, Roy Willey IV, a lawyer with the Anastopoulo Law Firm, said in an email to insidehighered.com.

A majority of universities, however, have come around to reimbursing students for their room and board costs on a prorated basis. Rep. Lance Gooden, R-TX, was an early advocate for the move in March, but argued that Congress shouldn’t get involved in the matter.

This reporter spoke with Rep. Gooden last week about the additional pressure students are placing on universities. He told me that the schools have “compelling arguments” that their students are still receiving their education, even if classes are online, however, the room and board repayments, he said, are a “nonnegotiable” for students who paid for their housing and were ultimately “kicked out.”

“Some of these are kids that don’t have anywhere to go, maybe they don’t have a home to return to or they can’t afford to get there, maybe they’re foreign and can’t leave the country. There’s so many sad stories,” Gooden said.

When asked if many American universities’ immense endowments, which are often in the hundreds of millions and tens of billions of dollars, could play some role in repaying students, because after I spoke with several students, they appear to be much more self-serving than not, Gooden replied that it’s “frustrating” and that “there’s probably some reforms to be made.”

“I know that it’s very frustrating when a school that has over a billion dollars, or hundreds of millions of dollars of an endowment comes and sends a team of people to my office and complains about how broke they are and it’s frustrating when I see schools put up a fight for returning money that should be owed to students knowing that they have hundreds of millions of dollars just sitting in a bank account and I realize that these endowments probably have taken a hit when the markets tanked in the last month, but I would think that the purpose of these endowments are to ensure for the continuity and the education of students,” Gooden explained.

He added, “There’s probably some reforms to be made. I don’t know if the government has the answers, but it’s really hard to feel sorry for any university that has such a huge endowment and they’re not really seemingly wanting to help. And I haven’t picked on any in particular, but we all know who the rich schools are and the level of sympathy for management of high dollar universities that have such huge bank accounts is just not there.”

Some universities are asking Congress to step in and provide them with stimulus funding. Despite their calls, Gooden says he “cannot imagine a scenario where we need to bail out universities who are not having to pay for the daily expense of the university because the campus is closed.”

He continued, “the universities are not profit centers, they shouldn’t be, they should be educating students. And, if anything, now I can’t imagine a scenario where that needs to be the case, but nothing surprises me. We’ve bailed out everyone else like casinos. It won’t surprise me if the universities feel like they need a feeding at the public trough.”

The University of Texas is one of the schools saying that the pandemic has taken a significant financial toll on the institution. However, the CARES Act allocated $14 billion for America’s higher education institutions and UTexas received $172.5 million of that funding, according to the Texas Tribune. The school’s endowment is the third-highest in the country with over $30 billion, right below Harvard and Yale.

ReturnMySemester.com was created as an online tracking tool for students who want to learn what their university is reimbursing and to compare that with their school’s endowments.

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