A Minnesota student has filed a class-action lawsuit against Duke University claiming that he and other enrolled students paid the defendant for a “comprehensive academic experience” and instead got something “far less,” as stated in the complaint.
In keeping with social distancing requirements imposed as a response to COVID-19, colleges and universities across the country shut down their campuses, ousted their students from their dormitories, and converted the instructional environment to online learning. Duke continued to charge its students the full price of tuition, as well as fees and the costs of campus residence.
The complaint alleges the Zoom-powered learning environment represents a breach of contract, as students cannot avail themselves of the peer interaction, personal interactions with faculty, core facilities, and program resources for which they paid. The complaint refers to the drop in quality of class lectures, which had been reduced to pre-recorded lessons. It also calls out the inaccessibility of the school’s library system, which included Bloomberg terminals, and the university’s gym.
According to the claim, the appeal of a Duke education also included the opportunities to interact with professors who are “world-renowned experts in their field.” In place of being able to personally interact with such faculty, as would occur on campus, the distance learning environment relegated such communications to email exchanges “with an estimated ten-fold increase in response time.”
Finally, the complaint speaks to the loss of interaction with classmates, another aspect of attending Duke that students viewed as enriching their learning experience. According to the claim, group projects have suffered, and participation in student activities has completely ceased.
Plaintiffs further convey the personal financial hardships they face as a product of COVID-19 shut-downs and social distancing mandates. The complaint refers to layoffs, unprecedented furloughs, and other disruptions to family income.
The lawsuit seeks recovery of compensatory damages, with trebling, as well as reimbursement for legal fees and expenses.
Duke focuses much of its recruitment messaging on the benefit of the campus experience and interactions with its faculty and staff. The university’s marketing material talks about working with “some of the world’s brightest minds,” including stipends for each student to dine with faculty members in the interest of establishing lasting relationships. It talks about the “kinetic energy” of relationships and learning spaces equipped with state-of-the-art technology.
For this academic experience in the 2020 spring term, Duke charged each student nearly $28,000 tuition, along with housing ($4,462-$5,894); dining ($760-$3,307); and various other fees, the total of which amounts to substantially more than distance-learning programs. For comparison purposes, the claim highlights several online college programs that charge between $960 and $3,370 per term.
Duke’s COVID-19 response is not unlike many other institutes of higher education across the country. Nationwide, students are questioning the fairness of paying full tuition for online learning. Where these academic institutions fail to respond with partial refunds or other terms to satisfy students who are not getting the education they paid for, one can expect similar lawsuits to follow.