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Parent sues George Washington University over tuition, says online classes not as valuable

A George Washington University parent is suing the school, saying he shouldn’t pay full tuition because his daughter is not getting a full college experience. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The parent of a George Washington University student is suing the school, claiming the closure of campus has disrupted his daughter’s education to the point that he should be reimbursed for tuition, room and board, and other expenses.

The class-action lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Washington, is the latest in a growing class of litigation against colleges and universities over spring tuition, and it foreshadows a potentially contentious fall as tuition-hungry schools and families battle over whether students should pay full price for less than a full college experience.

In the lawsuit, Mark Shaffer of Pennsylvania alleges that his daughter’s classes have not been as rigorous since the university shuttered and moved classes online, a public health measure designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Despite this alleged drop-off in quality, the university “continues to charge for tuition and fees as if nothing has changed” and is reaping “the financial benefit of millions of dollars from students,” the complaint states.

A semester at the D.C. school costs between $25,875 and $29,275, depending on the year the student entered. Meal plans range from $1,525 to $2,375, and on-campus housing can cost up to $8,420, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit claims that the closures have stripped students of the valuable experiences that typically make those prices worthwhile. Hallmarks of campus life are virtually nonexistent. In many cases, students don’t have access to labs or equipment they say is needed for certain courses, the lawsuit claims.

University officials are defending their decision to close the campus.

“GW, like many colleges and universities all over the country, has heeded the recommendations of public health experts by providing online classes in lieu of in-person classes,” said Crystal Nosal, a spokeswoman. “Our faculty have worked hard to provide our students with a quality academic experience by distance, and our staff too have worked hard to provide mechanisms for students to meaningfully engage with each other.”

The university has not yet been served with the lawsuit, but officials know it has been filed, Nosal said.

The suit follows a string of similar complaints at Boston, Brown and Vanderbilt universities. Students at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago have challenged administrators by demanding refunds and threatening to withhold tuition payments.

“Millions of parents of college students are facing major setbacks, including unemployment, and now they’re stuck having paid tens of thousands of dollars for a semester that has essentially been canceled due to mandated shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders,” said Steve Berman, the attorney representing students in the class-action suit against George Washington.

Nosal said the university has tried to offer some financial relief. Students have been credited a portion of their housing costs, which families can request in the form of a refund or apply toward future on-campus housing. Students can also request to be reimbursed for the prorated cost of their meal plans. The campus has also made emergency funds available to students in financial distress.

“GW knows this is not how our students expected to complete their classes this spring,” Nosal said. “While our classes usually meet in person, sometimes they do not. And in these extraordinary circumstances, they cannot.”

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