For six semesters as an undergraduate, and then a seventh in pursuit of a master’s degree, my daughter enjoyed the promised experience that our family paid for. Yet this semester is different.
As college campuses across the country have shut down to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, most schools, including GWU, have offered only online classes since mid-March. The reason for the shift is not the schools’ fault. But this remote education is nowhere near the caliber of the on-campus experience students were promised. For this reason, I and other GWU parents have requested a partial refund of this semester’s tuition and fees.
Unfortunately — and offensively — the university has refused these requests. This is why I am suing GWU for damages to compensate my family for losses suffered because of the school’s breach of contract, and why I am seeking to represent all families similarly harmed by the school through a class action.
The university, for its part, maintains that, because they “continue to deliver quality education, the tuition charged remains the same regardless of format.” As I hope to prove through my case, this is demonstrably false. Many professors are completely new to online teaching, thrust into this challenging format with no preparation. Students’ conversations with teachers are necessarily limited; peer interaction is difficult; study groups are unwieldy. Many of the resources in campus libraries are not available online. Art classes, music classes and all group-discussion classes are of diminished quality. Laboratory work is impossible.
Moreover, as the school itself argues, the GWU experience is not just about academics. This semester, students have missed out on the clubs, sports, cultural exchanges, internships and other in-person experiences that the university says are an “essential aspect” of their time at GWU.
The virtues of in-person education are why schools like GWU can charge such a premium. In comparison with GWU’s $29,275 per semester for undergraduate tuition, for example, online-only Western Governor’s University charges flat-rate tuition at $3,370 per term. Even GW seems to recognize the difference. Graduate students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science pay tuition at $2,035 per credit. But graduate students seeking an M.S. for Engineering Management & Systems Engineering online pay only $1050 per credit.
Of course, GWU and other universities have suffered economically as a result of the coronavirus. But they can hardly claim poverty. GWU has a $1.8 billion endowment. It is one of the largest landowners in the District of Columbia, with real estate assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. GWU lists its total assets as exceeding $4.7 billion. The university can certainly afford a partial refund of the tuition money that every parent and student paid for the 2020 spring semester.
Perhaps even more important than the accounting is the principle at stake. I work at a construction company. We are trying hard to hold on to our employees even though the covid-19 crisis has slashed our revenue. But we are not expecting our clients to float us by paying for promised services and products that we now cannot deliver. If we built only half a project but still demanded full payment, we’d be sued — as we should be. Instead, we are doing what we can to meet customers’ needs, and, when we cannot, we are providing discounts and refunds. This is the law; this is how business is supposed to be done.
I would expect nothing less from GWU and other elite schools. They promised a very specific kind of quality education, which families have spent their life savings — and more — to obtain. Especially now, when many families are suffering serious economic setbacks, the school’s sense of entitlement is particularly reprehensible.
None of this should come as a surprise to the university. In addition to GWU, students at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, New York University and other elite schools are petitioning for tuition refunds for the same reasons. So far, their pleas, like ours, have fallen on deaf ears. This lawsuit should not have been necessary — but my hope is that it will finally prompt GWU, and perhaps other schools like it, to honor their obligations to provide students with the education they were promised.