The LA Times reported that Latisha Watson a graduate student at the University of Southern California (USC), filed a class-action lawsuit against the college for unwillingness to partially refund students for room, board, tuition, and other fees due to the coronavirus pandemic. The school closed much of the campus and in-person activities and moved classes online.
Watson and an estimated 40,000 students included the claim believe that since they are unable to access campus buildings, activities, health services, and meal plan, and are experiencing "dramatically lower quality and less valuable education and services now being provided," USC should reimburse them for part of the 2020 spring semester. The article also noted that "USC will receive more than $19 million in federal aid through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. At least half of the funds must be spent directly on emergency aid for students. The other half may be used for institutional costs resulting from disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including reimbursing the university for refunds issued to students for room and board, tuition, and other fees." However, according to the lawsuit, "Despite receiving [an] influx of federal funds, Defendants refuse to refund or reimburse Plaintiff and similarly-situated USC students." The claimants believe this passes the pandemic costs off to them, which is financially burdensome, and the college profits from it.
USC Provost Charles A. Zukoski stated the school would refund students for unused room and board but rejected reimbursement for tuition for the 2020 spring and summer semesters. “USC pivoted immediately to deliver quality instruction in an online format. Faculty and staff have worked tirelessly to connect with students to ensure that academic work continues on track and that progress toward the completion of a USC degree continues.”
Watson v. USC is not the first case of its kind. A Forbes report discussed that lawsuits seeking coronavirus college refunds are happening across the country as schools close their doors and move to virtual learning. The article explained that seeking litigation against a school for tuition reimbursement, usually "make two legal claims, breach of contract and unjust enrichment. They say that schools failed to fulfill their contracts when they moved classes online and then enriched themselves with tuition revenue they should have returned to students." Some students are pursuing litigation for the difference in value between their distant and in-person educational experiences, which raises the question of how to put a price tag on each of them. A law firm representing several students from Drexel University and University of Miami had to investigate their clients' claims that distance learning was worth less than on-campus ones. It found that "Drexel offers the same classes online as it does on campus but at a 40% discount from the regular tuition rate." The firm stated that "Students deserved at least that much in a tuition rebate for the portion of the semester they were missing." Other lawsuits seek room, board, and student fees, acknowledging that professors are still providing valuable online curriculum and that those classes ultimately work toward a college degree. Courts will have to consider the circumstances of this pandemic and decide what constitutes the amount a student paid and the services or goods they received, which is no easy task and is somewhat subjective.