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Students are filing lawsuits and organizing strikes against universities

Some of their demands include refunds for housing, meal plans, and tuition for the shortened academic year.

An empty yard at Harvard University on April 27.
Most college campuses are closed, but that hasn’t prevented students across the country from organizing online to ask for academic concessions, fee refunds, and tuition freezes.
Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

College campuses are historically ripe spaces for grassroots student activism. For decades, students have organized labor strikes, political protests, and demonstrations to showcase their dissatisfaction with school administrators and current events alike.

More recently, student groups from institutions like the University of Chicago, The New School, and Vassar College have been exerting pressure on administrators to issue room and board refunds, make academic concessions, freeze tuition for the upcoming school year, or offer reductions to compensate for online education. Many are threatening to boycott classes or withhold tuition money, and some graduate students — who are primarily employed by their respective universities — are petitioning for extended research funding or considering a rent and labor strike. Meanwhile, a handful of students are independently filing class-action lawsuits to demand fair compensation for their shortened academic year.

The coronavirus pandemic suddenly forced most college campuses to close and migrate to virtual classes in March, leaving vulnerable students to contend with employment, housing, and food insecurity, sometimes on their own. As a result, there’s been an upswing in campus activism, starting with student-led mutual aid efforts. As with most activities in the coronavirus era, activism — and the frustration that has fueled this collective action — has moved online. The economic crisis prompted by Covid-19 is leaving millions of Americans unemployed and struggling to live with daily financial uncertainty. At the same time, students across the country say they feel unsupported by their universities — institutions that they’ve paid thousands of dollars to attend, some of which have millions to billions of dollars worth of endowments.

Yet it’s uncertain whether colleges, especially smaller schools that are heavily tuition-dependent and have small endowments, have the budget to meet some of these demands. Even the most prestigious schools are alarmed about their revenue decline this year: Some are projecting losses of more than $100 million, and many college leaders fear that a significant portion of students won’t enroll in the fall, even if campuses do open up. Under the CARES Act, campuses across the country will receive $14 billion in total aid, an amount that is “woefully inadequate” to meet the financial needs of institutions and their students, said the American Council on Education.

Student groups are pressuring administrators by going on strike

Students say these virtual grassroots protest strategies are a measure of last resort intended to highlight their discontent and force administrations to recognize their requests.

“It’s way harder to convince an administrator through a screen instead of waiting outside their office,” said Priscilla Gaona, a senior at The New School who helped organize a class and registration boycott. “But with this strike, we wanted to show faculty and staff that the student body supports these demands for budget transparency, a tuition freeze, universal grading system, and tuition refunds on top of housing and meal plan reimbursements.”

While The New School has addressed and complied with some of the students’ requests, organizers say it’s reflective of their efforts in shaping the administration’s agenda. According to Gaona, for example, The New School was able to expedite the timeline of housing and meal plan refunds shortly after students emphasized how crucial it was to receive money as soon as possible. “It’s easy for the school to act like what we’re asking for is impossible,” she told me. “But once students put pressure on them, they’re able to quickly decide the course of action.”

A New School spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement, “Students’ voices are incredibly important and are being invited into the conversations taking place, so that a range of solutions can be discussed. Our shared goal is to ensure the health and well-being of our community and the continued academic progress of every student.”

At the University of Chicago, about 500 undergraduate students are planning to withhold their tuition payment for the spring quarter starting on April 29, according to Julia Attie, a senior and organizer with UChicago for Fair Tuition. “We’re hoping to negotiate with the university before the end of the quarter, but students who are striking, including myself, are well aware of the risks, but it is a personal decision on my end,” Attie told me. The most immediate consequence of a tuition strike is a late fee and a potential registration hold on a student’s account.

If you didn't get a chance to see our livestream yesterday, here are some of the testimonies from our direct action. ...

Posted by UChicago for Fair Tuition on Sunday, April 26, 2020

The group is calling for a 50 percent reduction in spring quarter tuition, elimination of all student fees, and a reinstitution of part-time status for students (an option that was removed in 2016) among other demands that are supported by more than 1,500 students. So far, the university has agreed to a tuition freeze for the 2020-21 school year — a decision also made by various colleges as a form of financial relief during the pandemic. Student activists believe that a fraction of the school’s $8.5 billion endowment and its $5 billion fundraising campaign could go toward reducing tuition for all students in the upcoming quarter. (This estimate might not be entirely accurate, since most colleges have relatively fixed budgets and restrictions on endowments and fundraising dollars.)

A university spokesperson responded in an email, citing a previous message from UChicago’s provost that the university “will honor our commitments of financial support for students and make increased financial aid available to students and families with increased demonstrated financial need,” adding that it has “expanded its longstanding financial support for undergraduate students with demonstrated need and has extensive financial aid programs for students in our professional, PhD, and master’s programs.”

Meanwhile, graduate students — most of whom do research and teach courses on campus — are concerned about the timelines of their degree completion and whether their academic programs will continue to receive funding. Many can’t do research in their homes since labs and libraries are closed, said Uday Jain, a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago and member of the campus’s Graduate Students United union.

“A lot of us are demanding one-year extensions of our timelines and of our research because we aren’t sure how long this will go,” Jain told me, adding that graduate students are more likely to be financially vulnerable with families of their own. “International students are terrified their visas might expire before they could get their work done. We just want the guarantee that none of us will get fired during this very precarious time.”

Many lawsuits filed by students are asking for tuition refunds. That might be difficult, one legal expert says.

Plenty of student activist groups have a list of multi-pronged demands, which also includes continuation of pay for staff and faculty members. However, tuition and fee refunds for undergraduates have primarily dominated the conversation, especially in class-action lawsuits from students at Michigan State University, Drexel University, University of Miami, the University of California and California State University systems, and others.

“The common claim I’ve seen people launch is breach of contract,” said Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University. “Students are trying to claim there was some contractual obligation to provide them something that, in the end, wasn’t provided.” When a student enrolls at a university, they enter various contractual relationships with the school, Lake explained, through the form of meal plans, activity fees, educational services, and housing.

Some universities have already agreed to a partial refund of certain fees, but some court filings claim the compensation offered is not enough to cover students’ financial losses. For example, a case against the University of Michigan argued that the $1,200 housing credit reimbursed to those who moved out of residence halls is “not commensurate with the financial losses” of students and their families.

“These cases are 100 percent about fairness,” said David Fink of the law firm Fink Bressack, who is representing several students in cases against the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University. “We’re not objecting to the actions taken by the universities to protect the health and wellbeing of the students. It’s the question of who should bear the burden of the economic impact, and these students feel they haven’t been treated fairly with respect to tuition, room and board, and activity fees they’ve paid for.”

Due to campus closures, students no longer have access to labs, in-person training, or equipment for specific courses. “Is it fair for students to pay for the cost of in-person education in a brick-and-mortar classroom when the student is receiving online training from their own laptop?” Fink said. In short, these lawsuits argue that the colleges have failed in providing educational services and opportunities that students agreed to and paid for in their tuition.

Lake, an expert in legal issues surrounding higher education, told me that based on historical precedent, contract cases against institutions that broadly challenge the quality of instruction or what he calls “core mission delivery” — the teaching, testing, and pedagogy of a school — are rarely successful.

“Usually, a student or a group of students will have to show that a very particular promise was made to them,” he said. In the case of housing and meal plans, colleges have generally been more open to issuing partial refunds. But in the case of tuition specifically, Lake believes “administrators are reluctant or opposed to returning tuition because they believe they’re delivering educational services, just in a different way.”

Furthermore, contract law recognizes that in the case of an unforeseeable and unusual event like a pandemic, “the delivery of contractual obligations may change because of that,” Lake added.

When I asked if I could talk with any of the students who’ve filed suit, Fink told me that they’re “not seeking publicity” but felt that “it was their civic responsibility to step forward and file suit so they and their fellow students could be treated fairly.”

While it has been historically difficult for students to win against a university in a breach-of-contract case, Lake said it’s possible there could be a judge sympathetic enough to the plight of students to make a progressive ruling, which would move a case forward. Regardless, he concluded that administrators shouldn’t ignore the energy behind the student protests and litigation.

“Higher education can most likely defend itself in court, but that doesn’t mean the controversy is over,” Lake warned. “There’s a business challenge and a public opinion issue, and it would be very unwise to turn your back on the energy that’s building around affordability and the cost of college, especially if litigation doesn’t succeed.”

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