Two public Oregon universities are facing class-action lawsuits from students demanding they be reimbursed for a portion of tuition and fees they paid for online or remote classes in 2020.
The University of Oregon and Oregon State University were served with separate lawsuits from students this month, arguing they should not have had to pay the same they would for in-person instruction when the universities only offered remote or online instruction during the pandemic.
In March 2020, colleges across the U.S. and Oregon closed because of escalating COVID-19 concerns and moved all courses that had previously been in-person to online or remote instruction.
Many students agreed the switch was justified, but argued against paying full price for tuition and fees since they no longer were being offered the same experience. At the same time, colleges argued the cost to shift everything online on short notice and also add new infrastructure and technology justified the costs.
The students are suing for tuition and fee refunds for the amount to be decided by a jury.
The UO is being sued by one student — Caine Smith — on three claims: breach of contract, breach of implied contract and unjust enrichment.
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OSU is being sued jointly by students Danielle Pranger and Garrett Harris. OSU is facing six claims: breach of contract, breach of implied contract, unjust enrichment, violation of the Takings Clause, inverse condemnation and due process.
The lawsuit against OSU states that, “Despite sending students home, transitioning to online instruction and closing its campuses, Oregon State University continued to charge for tuition, and/or fees as if nothing changed, continuing to reap the financial benefit of millions of dollars from students.”
Both lawsuits also name the members of UO and OSU’s boards of trustees as defendants, arguing each board has to approve many major university decisions such as setting tuition and fees.
The lawsuits were filed in Multnomah County by the students’ representatives at Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro Law Firm. The firm is currently suing 15 other universities under similar arguments on behalf of students and parents.
UO spokesperson Molly Blancett said in a statement that UO was not surprised to be added to this list and will “vigorously defend” against the case.
“The lawsuit is wrong on the law and on the facts,” Blancett stated. “Despite the enormous challenges presented by a once in a generation pandemic, the value of an education at the University of Oregon remains unchanged. We are proud of the many ways we have adapted and adjusted to be able to continue to deliver a high-quality educational experience to our students, under difficult circumstances, so they could continue to pursue their degrees during the pandemic.”
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OSU spokesperson Steve Clark said OSU is aware of the allegations in the lawsuit and disputes them.
“Oregon State University has remained open since winter term 2020 during the pandemic on its campuses in Corvallis and at OSU-Cascades in Bend,” he said in a statement.
“OSU continues to provide students a high-quality education courses in person, remotely and online. Professors engage with students in instruction and support” of student learning, he said. Clark also pointed out OSU is still providing services such as academic advising, residential, student health services, library, recreational and cultural resource programming.
Both universities offered some in-person opportunities in fall for labs, music and other hands-on courses. The majority of classes were still online or remote.
Suits seek reimbursement
The students in both suits are seeking the same outcome: to be reimbursed, at least in part, for tuition and fees they paid last year. However, the accusations against each university and the actions they took in 2020 differ.
In spring 2020, UO’s President Michael Schill said the UO would not reduce the cost of tuition. For the 2019-2020 school year, tuition was $12,720 a year for in-state students and $36,615 a year for out-of-state students. UO is also under a new guaranteed tuition model, which was approved by the board of trustees in spring 2020, which means students who started in fall 2020 have different tuition rates than those who were enrolled before.
However, the UO did reduce the cost of its mandatory fees, refunding students for the student recreation fee and the student union fee. This dropped the cost from $500.75 to $328.25 for spring term. UO also allowed students living in the residence halls to move out spring term and cancel their housing contracts and receive a refund, among other allowances, according to the Division of Student Life.
The lawsuit against UO acknowledges these changes, but still asserts that tuition should have been reduced as amenities and in-person courses on campus stayed shut down.
“The tuition and fees that (UO) charged were predicated on access to … feedback from peers, mentors, professors, and guest lecturers; access to technology, libraries and laboratories; opportunities to attend or participate in spectator sports and athletic programs; access to student government and health services; and participation in extracurricular groups and learning, among other things,” the lawsuit states.
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The claim of unjust enrichment alleges that UO benefitted financially from the situation, saving money by moving courses online and remote and charging full tuition.
“Despite what the lawsuit suggests, the university’s costs for delivering instruction have not decreased as a result of the pandemic,” Blancett said. “Our faculty, as well as our academic and student staff, continue to serve students. In fact, our costs have increased due to a variety of new technology and infrastructure investments needed to provide quality instruction and to protect our campus community’s health and safety.”
OSU did not reduce tuition last year and said it would not do so for the 2020-2021 school year. Minimum tuition for a full-time in-state student last year was $2,644 each term and $7,919 for a full-time student from a different state, according to the lawsuit.
“Tuition was not reduced, but student financial aid was increased as we realized the impact of the pandemic on student employment and families of students,” Clark stated.
OSU student fees, which are set by student government and approved by the board of trustees, totaled $622.86 per term, according to the lawsuit. Student fees at OSU’s Cascades campus in Bend were reduced “by a small percentage” in spring and fall 2020 and winter 2021, Clark said. Student fees at the Corvallis campus were reduced for spring and fall 2020 terms.
Last spring, OSU also allowed residence hall students to cancel their room reservations without penalty, he stated. Students only paid for days they lived in the residence hall.
The same applies for both universities for the 2020-2021 school year.
OSU also waived its live-on requirement for the 2020-2021 school year, meaning first-year students are not required to live on campus. UO students also can request exemptions to the first-year live-on requirement, as always.
Contact reporter Jordyn Brown at [email protected] or 541-246-4264, and follow her on Twitter @thejordynbrown and Instagram @registerguard.
This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: University of Oregon, Oregon State University sued over charging full-price tuition in 2020