Columbia University has agreed to pay a $12.5 million settlement with students who sued the Ivy League school for not offering a tuition refund when it moved classes online in March 2020.
Like many other U.S. colleges and universities, Columbia closed its New York City campus, moved students out of dorms, and shifted to remote instruction because of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic. The university’s response has resulted in a class-action lawsuit, in which four students claimed that Columbia has breached contract for failing to deliver the on-campus learning experiences they paid for.
The lawsuit was later expanded to include every full-time student who attended Columbia for the spring 2020 semester, arguing that this estimated 30,000-member student body is entitled to a refund on tuition and fees paid for services, facilities, access, and opportunities that weren’t delivered.
Under the terms of preliminary settlement filed last week, $8.56 million will go toward refunding fees paid for student activities, university health services, and the use of gyms, libraries, and other campus facilities. Another $4 million will be paid out to cover administrative expenses, attorneys’ fees, class representative awards, and further litigation risks.
“The pandemic has imposed serious challenges on sustaining the teaching, research, patient care and public service at the core of Columbia’s mission,” Columbia said in a statement about the settlement. “Throughout this period, we have been committed to meeting the needs of our students.”
Court documents also note that Columbia “has continued to deny all allegations of wrongdoing” but is willing to resolve the legal action to “avoid further expense, inconvenience, and burden” on the terms and conditions of the preliminary settlement, which still needs judicial approval by U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman to become official.
Furman trimmed some of the claims in the lawsuit in March, when he told the Columbia students that they didn’t point to any specific promise made by the school to offer exclusively in-person instruction. But he allowed the case to proceed, saying that the students had sufficiently alleged that the university breached “specific contractual obligations” to provide access to certain campus facilities and activities in exchange for student fees.
There have been at least 261 similar lawsuits filed against U.S. colleges and universities over the amount they decided to reimburse students, according to a litigation tracker maintained by Missouri-based law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. Many of those suits have been dismissed, with rulings stating that the schools hadn’t contractually promised in-person instructions or access to campus facilities.