Branislav Ondrasik via Wikimedia Commons

Students from four universities have filed class action lawsuits against their colleges for refunds for tuition, room and board and other fees.

Students from Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Wayne State University and Western Michigan University are suing their colleges for refunds for tuition, room and board and other fees paid for the shortened semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Fink Bressack, a law firm with offices in Bloomfield Hills and Detroit, filed class action lawsuits on April 20 in the Michigan Court of Claims on behalf of the students. 

Each of the lawsuits was filed on behalf of a class representative standing in for students seeking refunds over their winter 2020 expenses. The suit defines three different classes – tuition, room and board and other fees – depending on what fees were paid by the student.

The lawsuits seek refunds of partial tuition of the winter 2020 semester, prorated unused portions of room and board and unused fees that the students had paid for but will not be provided the benefit of these fees, such as a meal plan. 

“When the universities announced that they were not going to be providing any refunds for tuition and only partial refunds of room and board, many students across the state felt they were being treated unfairly,” David Fink, managing partner of Fink Bressack, told the Jewish News. “We started out with the largest schools in Michigan and over time, we expect to become involved with similar lawsuits for most of the Michigan schools who are not treating their students fairly.” 

According to the lawsuit, the universities have not offered adequate refunds or reductions in charges of tuition, room and board, and fees charged to cover the cost of certain on campus services which will no longer be available to students.  

None of the schools are providing any refund of tuition. All of the schools, however, are providing a partial refund of room and board, but the refund that they are providing is much less than the prorated amount of room and board for the time period that the students have been out of their residencies. 

According to Fink, Wayne State University is only providing a refund of $850 when the lowest cost of room and board totals roughly $5,347. MSU is only refunding students $1,120 while their lowest cost of housing is $5,261. Lastly, U of M is providing their students with $1,200 even though their residency costs just under $6,000. 

“The university’s decision to transition to online classes and to request or encourage students to leave campus were responsible decisions to make,” the lawsuit against Wayne State states. “But it is unfair and unlawful for the University to retain tuition and fees and a disproportionate share of prepaid amounts for room and board costs and fees and to refuse to reduce any outstanding charges, effectively passing the losses on to the students and their families.” 

Tuition, room and board and other fees paid for by students at these universities can exceed $20,000 annually. At MSU, an in-state freshman will pay roughly $25,046 for one year. An in-state resident at U-M can plan on paying $28,602 for the year. At Wayne State, the in-state tuition is roughly $22,294 annually. 

However, for out-of-state students, their tuition costs can soar to around $50,000 a year at MSU and over $60,000 at U of M.   

Emily Gerkin Guerrant, vice president and university spokesperson at MSU, said in a statement to the JN, “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on pending litigation. However, I can say that MSU is delivering what students pay for: courses taught by highly qualified faculty, tutoring services, faculty office hours, academic advising, financial aid and access to our libraries.” 

“We don’t negate that this has been a difficult time for our university, especially for our students. It is, in part, why we provided credits or prorations for many on-campus expenses, including room and board, parking and recreational sports fees,” the statement read. But, she said, “we have maintained our commitment to providing meaningful and robust learning experiences at no additional cost to our Spartans.” 

University of Michigan, Wayne State University and Western Michigan University did not return requests for comment.  

“This is a question of fundamental fairness. If you lived in an apartment building and you had to move out because of a fire, you would move out but you wouldn’t expect to have to pay rent,” Fink said. “These students aren’t objecting to moving out of the dorms because the dorms aren’t safe right now. They just don’t think it’s fair to have to keep paying rent as though they lived in the dorms.” 

Each of the universities now have the opportunity to respond to the lawsuits. Fink hopes that all of the schools will be reasonable and “will want to do the right thing for their students and will be resolved without a court having to make a decision.” 

“These students paid top dollar to get the best possible in-person education from professors and graduate student research assistants in a face to face classroom environment,” Fink said. “And instead, they are sitting at home, learning on their laptops. They are not objecting [to] online learning, they are objecting having to pay top dollar for an education they are not really getting.” 

University students in other states have brought similar class-action lawsuits over COVID-19 expenses, including at the University of VermontLiberty UniversityDrexel University and the University of Miami.

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