COVID-era tuition lawsuits against these universities move forward

The plaintiffs argue that George Washington University and American University charged students full-price tuition while failing to provide an in-person learning experience.

Campus Reform spoke with both universities about the institutions' plans to defend their past actions.

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit voted 2-0 to “affirm in part” two class-action lawsuits filed against George Washington University (GWU) and American University over the institutions’ tuition policies during COVID-19. 

According to the plaintiffs, the Washington D.C. universities charged students full-price tuition while failing to provide an in-person learning experience. The filed suit argued that by revoking in-person options, the universities engaged in a breach of express contracts.

Mark Shaffer, Individually and on Behalf of All Others Similarly Situated, Et. Al, v. George Washington University And Board of Trustees of George Washington University and Maaz Qureshi, Individually and on Behalf of All Others Similarly Situated, Et. Al v. American University were argued and decided together Mar. 8 by the 3-seated bench. 

The 26-page opinion was penned by Judge Harry Edwards, with Judge Patricia Millet endorsing.

The plaintiffs had raised concerns about the lack of in-person student activities and services that are allegedly promised through the payment of student fees.

The plaintiffs further alleged that the universities profited off of the transition and continuation of online learning that was prominent during the Covid-19 shutdown.

Judge Ketanji Brown-Jackson, President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, did not partake in the ruling despite being present for arguments.

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The Circuit addressed the allegations two-fold, in part affirming and in part reversing the previous ruling of the District Courts, all while remanding the cases for “further proceedings.”

The ruling will not be definitive, however, as the judges determined that the plaintiffs did not provide sufficient evidence to prove the universities acted solely out of self-interest. However, the argument was deemed, in part, “plausible.”

”However, we hold that Plaintiffs’ complaints plausibly allege that the Universities breached implied-in-fact contracts for in-person education,” the opinion states. “Plaintiffs’ factual allegations, combined with the reasonable inferences drawn from them, suffice to support their claims that the Universities promised to provide in-person instruction in exchange for Plaintiff’s tuition payments.”

Pertaining to the use of student fees, the opinion dictates differences between the two challenges, however, both were deemed plausible.

The Shaffer case argues that GWU breached contract through additional course fees, but not the student association fee. The Qureshi case considers the sports center fee but disregards activity fees, technology fees, and Metro fees.

”We therefore reverse the District Courts’ dismissal of Plaintiffs’ implied-in-fact contract claims with respect to tuition and some- but not all- of the fees at issue,” the opinion resolves.

In regard to the universities challenge, the opinion acknowledges that the defendants may have compelling arguments that have not yet been addressed. Additionally, the judges note that defendants have not addressed the price difference normally charged to make online courses less expensive, nor why a cheaper price was not applied.

Students enrolled in GWU’s School of Engineering & Applied Science fronted “$1,965 per credit in tuition for on-campus students” while online students paid “only $975 per credit for students in the ‘M.S. (online) program,” according to the ruling. 

Additionally, students enrolled in the Health Sciences undergraduate program paid $11,070 for an online 18-credit semester compared to the in-person charge of approximately $25,900-$29,300.

”The Universities’ alleges pricing of online education provides additional support for the inference that the Universities promised in-person education in exchange for Plaintiffs’ tuition payments,” the opinion detailed.

The opinion concluded, “For the foregoing reasons, we affirm in part and reverse in part the District Courts’ judgments and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

[RELATED: Nation’s largest public university system goes remote, introduces new COVID restrictions]

American University responded to Campus Reform’s inquiry by assuring “we are reviewing the ruling and will continue to defend our position.

George Washington University spokesperson Crystal L. Nosal told Campus Reform that the university is ”disappointed with the Court’s decision” but “look[s] forward to defending the case on its merits.”

The university’s top priority is the health and safety of our community. GW heeded the recommendations of public health experts and complied with District of Columbia orders by moving to remote instruction in the Spring 2020 semester in the face of the pandemic,” she said. “We are thankful to our faculty, who worked hard to provide our students with a quality academic experience by distance, and to our staff for providing mechanisms for students to meaningfully engage with each other.” 

Brown-Jackson’s recusal of the decision highlights a potential response to how she will rule on educational matters if appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Since her nomination, Brown-Jackson has declined to partake in appeals court rulings in light of her upcoming confirmation hearing, which is scheduled to begin Monday. 

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