The University of Illinois at Chicago students are trying to get a partial refund for tuition and fees paid for on-campus studying that’s been moved online due to the pandemic. A similar situation is developing at other US colleges with lawyers getting involved and a growing potential for class-action lawsuits.

Students claim that they’re not getting what they paid for, while colleges insist that online lectures are just as good as in-person instruction and are challenging the students to prove otherwise.

IANAL, but here are a few thoughts that came to mind.

The matter of fees

Students were charged numerous fees for various on-campus services. These fees are simply not applicable to the remote learning arrangement and must be refunded.

Some colleges say that the fees will be repurposed to cover the costs of transitioning to the online teaching model. This is like paying a deposit to your prospective landlord only to learn that he has no apartment for you and instead will use your deposit on new construction.

Burden of proof

Colleges are claiming that online courses are equivalent to in-person instruction. Therefore, it is up to the colleges to prove this assertion. It is not up to the students to disprove such claims.

Colleges cannot substantiate their claims because they don’t have sufficient data. Their online teaching experience is limited at best. Gathering supporting evidence will take years.

Colleges are claiming that proof is in the pudding – that exam results will support their position. This disingenuous argument aims at forcing the students to accept the “let’s wait and see how it goes” approach, thus shifting the burden of proof onto the students.

Once you’ve accepted the substitution – even if temporarily – proving that you’ve been bamboozled becomes so much more difficult.

“We’ve done this before” argument

Colleges claim they already have sufficient experience because some professors teach some courses online sometimes.

A few months back I fixed a leaky toilet. I think I did a pretty good job, but this doesn’t make me a plumber.

Traditional colleges are often critical of their online competition. Some have sponsored studies to show the superiority of on-campus teaching. This criticism and research will now work against traditional colleges.

Bait and switch

If you look at promotional materials of any traditional college, the marketing spiel centers around campus life: grand lecture halls, rich libraries, well-equipped labs, modern living accommodations, dining options, and other fine amenities.

The brochures are packed with glossy photos of buildings, parks, restaurants, smiling people. What the students will be getting in place of all this awesomeness is their old room at their parents’ house. And they’re still expected to pay as if nothing changed.

Imagine you booked a Caribbean vacation aboard a grand cruise ship with Olympic-size swimming pools, water slides, and casinos. At boarding time, you discover the ship is just a dingy trawler. But you’re told not to fuss about it because you’re still going all the same places.

Lawyers representing the students are not going to engage in academic debate with professors about the merits of online education. They will whip out a stack of colorful campus life brochures and ask the jury to put a price on the “college experience”.

Colleges have no money

The sad truth here is that, aside from a handful of very wealthy schools, most US colleges are struggling financially even in the best of times. Issuing refunds may not be an option and the colleges will have to fight this in court. Not because they feel they have a good case, but because the only other option is bankruptcy.

Would this really be so terrible – bankruptcy? The US is one of the very few developed nations where higher education is not funded with taxes. In the US colleges operate as corporations and corporations sometimes go out of business.

Perhaps a string of college bankruptcies would be a positive development attracting more attention to the serious problems with higher education in the country. Whatever the case may be, colleges fixing their financial difficulties at the expense of the students is just not fair.

Online competition

Another threat faced by traditional colleges is their online competition – the schools that specialize in online education. They already have the experience and the right setup. They’re relatively cheap.

What they lack to some extent are opportunities for networking, but primarily they lack prestige. This pandemic is a golden ticket for many online schools. It’s a rare opportunity to level the playing field.