The outcome may depend on the paperwork both parties signed. Students are more likely to prevail if they can point to contract terms requiring specific services, according to Joe Brennan, a University of Vermont law professor who is tracking the litigation.

Students generally have housing contracts, just like renters of an apartment, said Barry Burgdorf, a former general counsel for the University of Texas system who is now at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. Families typically don’t have written agreements spelling out exactly what tuition covers.

Colleges will likely argue that they’re excused from past obligations because the pandemic and government shutdown orders made the regular delivery of services impossible.

Even if students can’t point to particular contract provisions, they’re making claims of “unjust enrichment,” arguing that it’s unfair for the schools to profit from services they didn’t provide.

Some of the suits are seeking compensation for what is known as “diminution of value,” or the difference between the worth of an on-campus education and one delivered online.

Depending on how courts view any disparity, the sums could surpass housing refunds. (Many students, however, pay far less than those published tuition prices because of scholarships.)

Still, courts have been reluctant to try to value one type of degree over another, according to Burgdorf. Another challenge: If judges don’t grant class-action status, most students wouldn’t find it worthwhile to pursue claims on their own.

Some students, like Cornell senior Joshua Zhu, haven’t signed on to a lawsuit but are cheering from the sidelines and could ultimately benefit. The 22-year-old information science major is logging on to classes from an off-campus apartment in Ithaca, New York, where he battles spotty Wi-Fi and misses working in an artificial intelligence lab.

“The tuition we paid to come to Cornell was with the expectation that we would have in-person classes and everything that came along with that,” Zhu said. “It almost seems like a breach of contract.”

This article was provided by Bloomberg News.

First « 1 2 3 » Next