A Yale junior filed a class-action lawsuit last week against the University for its refusal to refund tuition for the online half of the spring 2020 semester.
According to the complaint, Jon Michel ’22 is seeking a partial tuition refund to adjust for the educational value lost in the spring due to the sudden shift to online classes. He alleges that while students paid tuition with the expectation of on-campus learning, Yale attempted to pass off remote classes as an equal substitute. Like Yale, many other institutions of higher education are locked in lawsuits from students who allege that remote instruction fails to meet their expectations for the college experience.
According to University spokesperson Karen Peart, Yale intends to fight the suit.
“Yale acted to protect the community by moving quickly and effectively to online classes, which allowed students to complete the semester safely,” Peart wrote in an email to the News. “Yale also provided students with prorated refunds for the room and board that they were unable to use. Yale believes the lawsuit is legally and factually baseless, and it will offer a vigorous defense.”
In the complaint, Michel argued that online Yale experience cannot compare to education on campus, where University University-hosted activities outside of classes account for a significant portion of an undergraduate’s daily schedule. It cites opportunities available only on campus — including library and laboratory access, networking opportunities and in-person interaction with professors and peers — that set campus life apart from online learning.
“The online learning options [Yale] offered for the Spring 2020 semester, though consistent with safety measures, cannot provide the academic and collegiate experience [Yale] itself extolls as its signatures,” the suit states.
Other universities, including Princeton and Georgetown, have offered tuition breaks for the coming year. Georgetown cut tuition by 10 percent for undergraduates who were not permitted to return to campus and acknowledged that students on campus would have access to services unavailable to those learning remotely. Princeton also slashed its tuition by 10 percent — an unprecedented but necessary move according to Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber, who called the coronavirus pandemic’s effects on education “one heck of a crisis.” Still, some of Yale’s peer institutions will maintain their present tuition costs, including Harvard University.
According to Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun, only 55 percent of undergraduates will enroll on campus for the upcoming semester.
Professors who taught Zoom-based classes for much of last spring described varying levels of success with the format.
Philosophy professor Michael Della Rocca reported a successful transition to online learning and credited the small class size of seminars and students’ eagerness as important factors in the positive experience.
Benjamin Barasch, a postdoctoral associate, also noted that online classes exceeded his expectations as an emergency substitution and helped instill a sense of normalcy at the pandemic’s outset. But, he continued, they were at best a stopgap until in-person instruction could resume.
“I was impressed by how much ‘humanness’ could be transmitted virtually,” Barasch wrote in an email to the News. “And yet—and this is extremely important—online classes are no substitute for the real thing. The seminar, a group of 12-15 people around a table, without distractions, working together to think deeply about ideas, is the heart of academic life, especially in the humanities. You just can’t get that online.”
Barasch added that the medium of Zoom “seems to lend itself to passivity,” allowing students to largely spectate in seminars without calling the same attention to themselves that they would during face-to-face classes.
Michel’s suit alleges that the University already recognizes a disparity between in-person and Zoom-based learning, as it traditionally charges less for its courses that were already offered online before the pandemic struck the United States.
John Soumilas, one of the lawyers representing Michel’s case, said that though Yale acted responsibly by shutting its doors during the pandemic, it has passed the financial fallout of this decision onto students.
“By collecting the entire amount, we believe that the university is placing all of the burden on the parents and students as a result of this change, and not shouldering a portion of the burden that we think they should and that they are legally required to,” Soumilas told the News.
Michel’s suit also joins a host of similar class action cases brought against institutions including Brown University, Columbia University and Harvard.
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