American universities were dealt a severe blow last spring when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Almost all of them were forced to switch from face-to-face instruction to an online format in midsemester.
Students at several universities filed lawsuits demanding a refund of tuition and fees. They argued that the quality of online teaching was inferior to classroom instruction, and they wanted their money back.
A few days ago, Judge D. J. Stearns, a federal district judge in Massachusetts, issued a decision in one of these cases: Chong v. Northeastern University. Plaintiffs had filed a class-action lawsuit against Northeastern to get a refund of tuition and fees, but Judge Stearns sided with Northeastern University. In his view, Northeastern had not breached its contract with students by shifting to an online teaching format, although he allowed the plaintiffs to proceed with their claim for a refund of the campus recreation fee.
I think Judge Stearns made the right decision, and I predict other judges will rule in favor of universities when they decide similar cases. After all, it is not the universities' fault that the nation was virtually shut down by COVID-19 last spring. The colleges pursued their only reasonable option--which was to convert all instruction to a distance-learning format.
I am sure that complaining students are often right when they say that online instruction is inferior to face-to-face teaching. Nevertheless, new technologies like Zoom have improved the quality of video-conferencing. I have taught via Zoom over the past several months, and I don't think my students' learning experience was hurt because I was not in the same room with them.
As I said, I think American colleges will win students' lawsuits demanding tuition refunds because their instruction was shifted to an online format. But that does not mean the colleges will skate through the coronavirus crisis unscathed.
Thane Gallo, one of the named plaintiffs in the suit against Northeastern, paid a tuition bill of $26,210 for the 2020 spring semester. Manny Chong, a graduate student in Northeastern's counseling psychology program, was charged $23,400 to enroll in spring classes. That's a lot of money to take online courses.
All across America, universities will find that the coronavirus awoke students and their parents to the fact that the cost of attending an American college is too damned high. Undergraduate tuition at Northeastern is $52,000 a year, and students must pay additional money for room and board, textbooks, and assorted fees.
That simply is not reasonable--especially when students are taking classes from their home computers. In the months to come, colleges and universities may discover another symptom of COVID-19 not yet officially identified: sticker shock.
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