By Susan Stone & Kristina Supler

Students are muscling through online classes. Parents are watching their quiet homes become classrooms. Families who have spent tens of thousands of dollars for their children to live and learn on-campus have reached an obvious conclusion: the new normal caused by the coronavirus pandemic is not what they paid for. In a time of distance learning, disenchanted families are questioning the value proposition of online higher education.

While schools are generally giving pro rata refunds for housing and meal plans, tuition refunds have been the more difficult question. Some private schools have agreed to refund a portion of tuition, while others have refused. The most memorable response to calls for tuition refunds came from the dean of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where tuition is nearly $60,000 a year. She explained that refunds would not be given, and she did so with a video of herself dancing to R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.”

Schools that have declined to issue tuition refunds during the quarantine have generally done so based on their ongoing contractual obligations to pay professors, staff and other related business expenses that can’t be avoided. Although some professors have struggled to transition to distance learning, many have revamped their curriculum in a matter of days to enable students to finish the semester.

So, what are the rights of students on the issue of tuition refunds? Families should first carefully review their enrollment contracts and, if applicable, other school policy documents. Generally, the relationship between private schools and their students is governed by state contract law, along with enrollment agreements, catalogs, handbooks and other policies that make up the contract. As a result, the black letter language of these documents likely controls a family’s right to receive a refund.

The contract language can run the gamut. Some private schools have provisions that expressly deny all tuition refunds in the event of catastrophic circumstances, including pandemics. Others allow for wiggle room. One prolific private university’s regulations state that, in the event of closure due to a public health emergency, the university will use its judgment to make “appropriate refunds” in “light of all the circumstances.” It is deliberately unclear what these terms mean, and a court may end up figuring it out.

Other private schools, however, have no provisions concerning school closure in the event of an emergency. In these situations, families are likely to be on even stronger footing to demand and receive a refund. Finally, families should review the terms of any applicable tuition insurance contracts, which some private schools require as a condition for enrollment.

Recently, some students have pursued class action litigation against colleges and universities for various types of refunds. Many schools have not yet made decisions regarding refunds because they await federal funding under the CARES Act. While it is questionable whether CARES Act funds can be used for student refunds, the financial support from the government may allow schools to draw from other financial resources to issue refunds. While students understandably feel short-changed by remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic, schools are struggling to meet their own financial obligations and this difficult time in history requires concessions by both schools and students.

For more information on your rights, please contact Education, Student & Athlete Defense, and Title IX attorneys Susan Stone (scs@kjk.com or 216.736.7220) or Kristina Supler (kws@kjk.com or 216.736.7217).

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