Proposed class action alleges College can’t charge full tuition for online learning

by Abigail Mihaly | 5/29/20 10:19am

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by Katelyn Jones / The Dartmouth

On Thursday, Dartmouth became the latest in a string of colleges across the country to be sued for charging full tuition amid the transition to an online format.

Dartmouth parent Orlando Alfred filed a class action in the U.S. District Court of New Hampshire on behalf of himself and others who paid tuition and fees to the College for the spring or summer terms but did not receive the same quality of education as an in-person term. The lawsuit argues that Dartmouth breached contract and garnered “unjust enrichment” when it moved to online learning without refunding any part of students’ tuition. The suit asks for up to $5 million in damages for members of the class, according to Roger Phillips, the plaintiff’s local counsel.

Alfred, a Florida resident, is seeking a refund on part of spring and summer term tuition for the “decreased value of the education” that his son and other students allegedly received as a result of the virtual learning format. The plaintiff is also requesting reimbursement for fees for services that students were not able to receive this term, such as course activity fees.

The complaint asserts that Dartmouth students’ education extends beyond classroom learning, adding that Dartmouth “does not merely sell credit hours and diplomas as one would sell widgets. It sells an experience.”

The filing includes quotes and images from Dartmouth’s website that the plaintiff says shows that Dartmouth’s marketing focuses on in-person campus experience.

“Thousands of Dartmouth students were guaranteed such benefits and experiences when Plaintiff and Class members paid tuition to Dartmouth for on-campus courses,” the lawsuit said, referencing “hands-on experiential learning” and social experiences like sports teams. “However, since mid-March 2020, these students have been denied the full benefits for which Plaintiff and Class members paid.”

College spokesperson Diana Lawrence declined to comment on behalf of the College due to its status as “active litigation.”

Since late March, over 90 class actions have been filed against universities across the U.S. demanding refunds of tuition and fees, according to a May 21 report from the Student Conduct Institute of the State University of New York. Among the institutions targeted in these complaints are Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University and Harvard University. The SUNY report states that as of yet, no U.S. college or university has publicly refunded partial or full tuition as a result of the transition to online learning.

After a class action is filed and before the case proceeds, a federal judge must certify the class represented in the lawsuit by proving that “the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class” and that the members of the proposed class have questions of law or fact in common, among other legal requirements. Philips said that a timeline for the case is unknown at this time.

Lead counsel Michelle Drake and Matthew Schultz could not be reached by press time.

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