Can You Sue for a Tuition Refund for COVID-19 Closure?

Imagine you are a parent paying tuition totaling almost $50,000 a year to send your child to a to a well-regarded, pricey liberal arts college in southern Massachusetts. In the spring of 2020 COVID-19 hits, and the college closes its campus to students and transitions to “virtual learning” for the foreseeable future. As a result, your child is denied the benefits of in-person instruction, as well as access to facilities and extracurricular activities, all things the school advertised before your child began his/her studies and for which you have already paid. Can a parent, under such circumstances, sue the college to recover partial reimbursement of tuition and fees that have been paid for but were not received? A recent Massachusetts Superior Court judge has ruled that the answer to that question may be yes. The decision provides interesting insight into courts’ analysis of the increasing number of claims brought by and on behalf of college students as a result of temporary or permanent campus closings brought on by the pandemic, and the balancing of sometimes conflicting interests of public safety, institutional educational missions and huge financial investments by students and their families.

The individual who brought the lawsuit was the parent of a full-time student who lived on campus at the start of the 2019-2020 academic year and paid for his child’s fees, room and board, and tuition – expenses that totaled more than $63,000. The student’s parent alleged that his child was enticed to attend the college, in part, due to the institution’s touting of the additional learning opportunities it provided on campus, including facilities such as labs, the library and gym, and the ability to participate in on-campus extracurricular activities and groups.

In March 2020, with the onset of COVID-19, the college ordered all students to leave campus for the rest of the spring semester and the school closed its facilities and canceled all in-person classes, events and services due to the pandemic. Students were informed that all classes would resume online.

The college then offered a 42% credit of the semester’s room and board charge, to be applied to future semesters, and a refund of all unused dollars on a student’s meal plan. The college did not, however, offer a pro rata reimbursement on fees for services not provided due to the closure, nor did it offer to compensate families for the difference in value between in-person and online instruction.

The student’s parent filed a lawsuit claiming that the college’s failure to reimburse students for monies paid for services and benefits not received amounted to unjust enrichment and breach of contract. The college asked the judge to dismiss the parent’s lawsuit, alleging that the claims contained therein were based on “educational malpractice” a civil cause of action not recognized by Massachusetts courts. The judge denied the college’s request to dismiss the lawsuit and ordered the litigation to proceed.

It is interesting to note that both the parent in his lawsuit, and the judge in his decision, were careful not to criticize the college for shutting down its campus and moving its courses completely online. Rather, the parent alleged that by shutting down and forcing students to move off campus while failing to reimburse some of the tuition and fees, the college had not lived up to its end of the bargain. The judge agreed, at least in part, with this reasoning, and ruled that the parent had shown, at this early stage of litigation, that he may be able to establish that the parties’ agreement included a right to in-person instruction, and he could not yet conclude that the parent would not be able to prove the college’s failure to refund some of the tuition and fees was unjust under the circumstances, as a matter of law.

All this does not mean the student’s parent will ultimately prevail. It simply means the case will not be dismissed yet and the parent will eventually have his day in court.


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