College students file lawsuits seeking refund from schools moved online during coronavirus lockdowns

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Students at more than 25 U.S. universities who have been sent home to learn online during the coronavirus pandemic are filing lawsuits against their schools, claiming they're not getting the quality of education they were promised and demanding partial refunds on tuition and campus fees.

The suits reflect students' growing frustration with online classes that schools scrambled to create as the coronavirus forced campuses to close last month. The suits say students should pay lower rates for the portion of the term that was offered online, arguing that the quality of instruction is far below the classroom experience.

FILE: Drexel University in Philadelphia. 

FILE: Drexel University in Philadelphia.  (AP)

Some colleges have already refunded students. St. Michael's College, a liberal arts school in Vermont, announced Sunday it would refund $3.5 million in residence free revenue.

"While this was a difficult decision, we reviewed refund policies from other colleges and universities and determined that this was both the best practice and the most ethical course of action. It is also a very costly decision," College President Lorraine Sterritt said.

It's just not the same experience I would be getting if I was at the campus.

— Grainger Rickenbaker

Other schools though, have rejected the idea of refunds, saying that students are learning from the same professors who teach on campus and they're still earning credits toward their degrees. Officials insist that they're still offering students a quality education.

But many students say online learning is no substitute for the classroom.

Grainger Rickenbaker, a 21-year-old freshman who filed a class-action lawsuit against Drexel University in Philadelphia, said there’s little interaction with students or professors and some classes are being taught almost entirely through recorded videos.

"You just feel a little bit diminished," Rickenbaker said. "It's just not the same experience I would be getting if I was at the campus."

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University of Colorado spokesman Ken McConnellogue said it's disappointing people have been so quick to file lawsuits only weeks into the pandemic. He said the suits appear to be driven by a small number of "opportunistic" law firms.

Lawyers representing students, however, say the refunds are a matter of fairness.

"You cannot keep money for services and access if you aren't actually providing it," said Roy Willey, a lawyer for the Anastopoulo Law Firm in South Carolina, which is representing students in more than a dozen cases.

Other firms taking on similar cases say they're also seeing a wave of demand from students and parents who say they deserve refunds.

Proponents of online education say it can be just as effective, and universities say they've done everything they can to create rigorous online classes in a matter of weeks.

But some of the complaints maintain that the college experience is about more than course credits. They say there's value to the personal interaction with faculty and classmates, both in the classroom and out.

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Colleges counter that the pandemic has put them under sharp financial strain, with some estimating that they could lose up to $1 billion this year as they brace for downturns in student enrollment, state funding and research grants. Some have already announced layoffs and furloughs as they work to offset losses.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.