Campus Reform | Colleges closed many campus services during pandemic...but still charged students for them

Colleges closed many campus services during pandemic...but still charged students for them

Lawsuits across the country have been filed against colleges for charging students fees for services that were cut off during the pandemic.

Campus Reform reported on a wave of lawsuits in spring 2020. Now, colleges are being slammed with a new wave of lawsuits.

In spring 2020, Campus Reform reported on several colleges refusing to refund fees that students paid to use campus facilities that were then closed for the majority of the semester in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Now, as the beginning of the spring 2021 semester is getting underway, a new presidential administration has assumed power, and coronavirus cases are surging, some students already facing hardship are still fighting against colleges charging them exorbitant fees for services they're forbidden to use.

On December 4, students at Towson University in Towson, Maryland, which is offering approximately 85 percent of its classes online during the spring 2021 semester, published a second petition calling for school officials to cancel or refund a $499 athletics fee, which they already petitioned Towson to cancel for the fall semester. 

Towson University officials say the money will pay for “extensive health measures” required for its athletes, even though that was supposed to the purpose of the $17.3 million the university received in federal coronavirus aid funds. The school is set to receive even more money from the most recent federal COVID aid package and could net more federal funds if another federal aid package passes Congress and is signed into law by President Joe Biden. 

Towson student Kathryn Ziegler wants Towson to pay the money back to "help relieve some of the stress placed on families" affected by the pandemic. 

"These are extremely difficult and unprecedented times that may cause a handful of hardships for students," she said, "The fee should be refunded."

[RELATED: Towson cuts fall sports, but not athletics fee?]

Now, Campus Reform has learned, some undergraduates are demanding a refund. 

On January 11, lawyers representing Anna Seballos, an undergraduate student at Rice University in Houston, Texas, filed a class-action lawsuit seeking $5 million from Rice as compensation for its failure to provide students the “college experience they paid for.” 

Rice’s implementing of online instruction, canceling student services, and shuttering campus facilities during the beginning of the pandemic, said lawyers representing Seballos, “constitutes a breach of the contracts entered into by plaintiff with the University," the Houston Chronicle reported. 

"Plaintiff and the members of the Class have all paid for tuition for a first-rate education and on-campus, in-person education experiences, with all the appurtenant benefits offered by a first-rate university. Instead, students like [the] plaintiff were provided a materially different and insufficient alternative," the lawyers wrote. 

[RELATED: WVU imposes COVID-19 fee for untested students]

The suit’s class-action status allows Seballo’s legal team, which comprises attorneys from Edwards Law Group, Leeds Brown Law, and the Sultzer Law Group, to represent thousands of students who paid for services they never received. 

Rice University declined to comment on any story regarding pending litigation. 

Manhattanville College in Harrison, New York, is another school being sued for allegedly refusing to refund expensive fees it charged students for access to campus facilities it barred them from using during the pandemic. Manhattanville officials did promise to credit students as much as $1,850 for room and board costs, but attorneys for Joseph Laudati, a former student who decided not to return to Manhattanville in fall 2020, say the “appropriate refunds and credits were never issued” to his account.

[RELATED: Thousands demand UCSD 'cancel' student fees after classes go online]

Laudati claims that Manhattanville declined to refund his money after learning he would not return for a second year, and his complaint demands that Manhattanville “disgorge amounts wrongfully obtained for tuition, fees, on-campus housing and meals.”

Campus Reform also covered the story of Jessica Liang, a University of California-San Diego student who circulated a petition asking UCSD to cancel or discount fees for athletics, transportation, and other recreational services. 

Liang’s petition included a screenshot showing charges for a Campus Activity Fee, InterCollegiate Athletics Activity Fee, Recreational Facility Fee, College Activity Fee, Student Service Fee, Transportation Fee, and University Center Fee amounting to $1,000 for UCSD’s 2020 spring quarter. 

Liang's petition was signed by more than 12,000 people but did not convince officials at UCSD to change its policy. The school responded neither to Liang nor Campus Reform when asked to comment on this story. 

In other cases, colleges are inventing new kinds of fees.

Just weeks before the fall semester, on August 16, 2020, Campus Reform reported on Kansas State freezing tuition but continuing to charge “online” and “privilege” fees. 

[RELATED: Kansas State freezes tuition, but charges ‘online’ and ‘privilege’ fees]

In December, the Kansas State Board of Regents voted to keep those fees flat for the 2021-22 academic year, as confirmed by the Kansas Board of Regents Director of Communications Matt Keith. No fees have been amended for the spring 2021 semester. 

In August 2020, Campus Reform learned that West Virginia University charged students $250 for failing to acquire a COVID-19 test before the beginning of the fall semester.

The school’s COVID-19 webpage indicated that this policy would continue into the spring semester, announcing that “failure to be tested by Saturday, Jan. 16, will result in a $250 fee being added to the student's account.”

Officials at the University of Illinois System will soon vote on a proposal to freeze undergraduate tuition, but will also consider charging undergraduates higher student fees and rates for room and board. 

Student fees at the Urbana-Champaign already cost students about $3,000 a year, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. That includes $66 for "Student-Initiated Fees" that cover the cost of a broad range of progressive causes, which students previously voted to approve in a referendum, according to the website of the Office of the Registrar.  These include the "Cleaner Energy Technologies Fee," "Cultural Programming Fee," and the "Sustainable Campus Environment Fee." 

Campus Reform reached out to UCSD, Towson, Kansas State, and West Virginia University for comment; this article will be updated accordingly. 

An official at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign declined to comment.