U of M Faces Class Action Lawsuit Over Tuition Refund for Online Classes

The out-of-control cost of college tuition has been an issue for some time. So it’s understandable why many students feel they’re getting short-changed with the shutdown of classes and campus life in favor of an online experience that’s virtually just as expensive.

The COVID outbreak led the University of Minnesota, for example, to close in-person classes and switch to online learning systemwide in the middle of the spring semester in March. But did students get what they were paying for by attending classes vicariously over the internet?

A class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of students makes the case that the U of M owes millions of dollars in a partial tuition refund for the less than advertised spring 2020 semester, according to the Star Tribune.

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Hennepin County District Court, U graduate Patrick Hyatte alleges the university breached its contract with students by charging full tuition for what amounted to an online-only experience for the second half of the semester. Hyatte and some 49,000 students enrolled at the U’s five campuses should receive prorated refunds of tuition and mandatory student fees for that span of the semester, the lawsuit argues.

“Defendants did not provide the promised in-person educational experiences, services, and opportunities for approximately 50% of the spring 2020 semester,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants have unilaterally elected to shift financial risk onto its students … and unfairly force them to bear burdens of COVID-19.”

The legal challenge comes at a time when the university already faces a $166 million budget shortfall largely resulting from the financial impact of the coronavirus on-campus shutdown. That’s led the university to consider borrowing $80 million for operations. But the U could wind up even deeper in red ink if the student lawsuit succeeds.

The U did compensate students who had to move off campus because of the pandemic last spring with prorated room and board refunds, which cost the U about $35 million. Students also received partial refunds for parking contracts and mandatory student fees, which fund campus health care services, sexual misconduct prevention programs, student groups and fitness facilities.

But many students felt they were entitled to a larger sum. More than 3,000 university students signed a petition last spring calling for a partial tuition refund to reflect the switch from an in-person education to online learning.

It may be hard to put a price tag on the worth of a college education. But students know too well the excessive cost of getting a degree and it’s hard to fault them for demanding to get their money’s worth.