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Students file lawsuits claiming some schools failed to adequately refund fees

(CNN) — Class-action lawsuits have been filed against three New York universities by students who argue the schools have failed to adequately refund or reimburse students for tuition and other fees they paid to have in-person, on-campus classes and other activities.

The lawsuits were filed this week against Columbia University, Pace University and Long Island University, all private institutions located in the New York City area.

The students argue that not only is online-only instruction less valuable and should cost students less, it is not what they paid for. The students are calling on their universities to acknowledge what is being lost in the transition from in-person, hands-on learning to online instruction, such as interaction with professors, access to campus facilities, housing, meals, and social interaction, and asking them to adjust the financial burden accordingly.

Although the undergraduate students acknowledged that the closing of their campuses was necessary given the spread of the coronavirus, the plaintiffs argued that transitioning classes online starting in March and closing campuses forced students to miss a significant portion of the semester that they had paid for.

While Columbia University has announced that it will be issuing full pro-rata refunds for room and board fees, the university Financial Services team made clear on its website that tuition will not be refunded as long as instruction continues, but it said it would rebate a portion of the facilities and student life fees.

“Tuition and fees will continue to pay for the delivery of instruction, as well as the associated costs of academic support services. As long as instruction continues, tuition will not be refunded,” the Financial Services team wrote on the university website.

In the lawsuit against Columbia, the student, who filed the class action suit anonymously, argues that the university “breached the contract with Plaintiff and the Fees Class by moving all classes for the Spring 2020 semester to online distance learning platforms, constructively evicting students from campus, and closing most campus buildings and facilities, without reducing or refunding fees accordingly.”

The lawsuit claims that the university has “refused and continues to refuse to offer any refund whatsoever with respect to the tuition that has already been paid.”

The student also pointed out that continuing to pay for an on-campus undergraduate degree in social work for the spring, summer and fall semesters, which costs approximately $58,612, is considerably more expensive in comparison to the university’s online program, where the tuition for the same degree costs $48,780.

The Columbia student argued that while the university has refunded some of the fees, “such refund has come with no explanation, appears to be arbitrary, and in any event, is wholly insufficient.” In the filing, the individual noted that out of $1,065 in mandatory fees paid by the student, only $119 was refunded.

Long Island University student Nicolas Irizarry filed a class action suit against his university on April 21, seeking refunds because he says his educational experience dramatically changed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Irizarry had paid approximately $21,827 in tuition and fees to Long Island University and has not been provided a refund for any portion of his payment.

A similar lawsuit was filed on April 23 by Pace University student Xaviera Marbury. The lawsuit says the university “has either refused to provide reimbursement for the tuition, housing, meals, fees and other costs that Defendant is no longer providing, or has provided inadequate and/or arbitrary reimbursement that does not fully compensate Plaintiff and members of the Class for their loss.”

Marbury claims that while the university has said it will issue campus housing refunds of $2,000 for students living on the New York campus and $1,600 for students at the Pleasantville and Haub Law campuses, “this planned refund is both completely arbitrary and wholly inadequate.”

Marbury said the rent for her dorm in New York was $9,380 for the semester, which began January 27 and was scheduled to end on May 16. Marbury left campus on March 11 for spring break.

Pace University spokeswoman Marie Boster said in a statement to CNN that while the university has not been served yet with the lawsuit, “housing fee adjustments for students who had to leave the residence halls are being issued. We are planning to use CARES Act funding to support our students when it is available.”

The CARES Act is the coronavirus relief fund passed by Congress earlier this year.

CNN has reached out to Columbia University and Long Island University for comment and has not yet received a response.

Marbury claimed in her class-action lawsuit that Pace University has “refused and continues to refuse to offer any refund whatsoever on its meal plans.” The university’s website says unused meal plan funds will roll over to the fall semester, and for graduating students, the unused portion of their spring meal plan will be refunded.

The lawsuits against Columbia and Pace Universities were the result of petitions that had been circulating those campuses, collecting thousands of signatures to try to pressure the institutions to give refunds.

The students at Columbia and Pace argue that the college’s endowments — which the lawsuits estimate at $10.9 billion and $182 million, respectively — coupled with the money it is eligible to receive from the CARES Act, places the institutions in the financial position to meet the students’ request.