College students, kicked off campus by the coronavirus, have a new extracurricular activity: litigation.

U.S. undergraduates have sued more than 50 schools, demanding partial tuition, room-and-board and fee refunds after they shut down.

The proliferating breach-of-contract suits, many of them filed over the last week, target some of the biggest names in higher education: state systems including the University of California and Arizona State, as well as private institutions such as Columbia, Cornell and New York University.

The students’ lawyers, advertising on sites such as, are seeking class-action status on behalf of hundreds of thousands of students. While legal experts say the suits face high hurdles, they could potentially involve billions of dollars in claims.

To justify annual prices that can top $70,000 a year, colleges have long advertised their on-campus experience, including close contact with professors and peers who will become a lifelong network.

Now, millions of students are instead studying online. Many of the suits are seeking compensation for the difference in value between the virtual and in-person experience. Plaintiffs include Grainger Rickenbaker, a freshman majoring in real estate management and development at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, which charges more than $50,000 in tuition and another $16,000 in room, board and other fees.

“I am missing out on everything that Drexel’s campus has to offer -- from libraries, the gym, computer labs, study rooms and lounges, dining halls,” said Rickenbaker, 21, who is suing for a partial refund as he works remotely from his home in Charleston, South Carolina.

Most colleges declined to comment on the suits. The California State System said it would defend itself against a complaint that understates the services it’s still providing. Arizona State said it was giving a $1,500 credit to all students who moved out of university housing by April 15.

Peter McDonough, general counsel for American Council on Education, a college trade group, said schools are battling circumstances outside their control. They’re putting tremendous time and resources into supporting remote learning, while still paying professors and bearing other costs, he said.

“Faculty and staff are literally working around the clock,” McDonough said. “We’re in the middle of a catastrophe. Schools are doing their best to work their way through it.”

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