Over the past few weeks, universities nationwide have transitioned to remote, virtual instruction in response to the COVID-19 global crisis. This decision has stirred controversy among college students, who are demanding tuition refunds. These students assert that they are not receiving the same benefits that in-person instruction provides and therefore should not have to pay the same price. Drexel students are no exception to this frustration, with one student having filed a class-action lawsuit against the university.
In order to appease student concerns about online classes, Drexel President John Fry recently announced that the university would offer an opt-in pass/fail system as an alternative to the regular grading system. In an email sent out to the Drexel community on April 4, President Fry wrote, “…we recognize the difficult situation faced by many students, having had to move off campus abruptly and return home amid a great deal of uncertainty and disruption in their lives. In an effort to assist our students, we have decided to offer the option to take spring term courses on a pass/fail basis.”
In a separate email sent on March 25, Fry additionally acknowledged that students working from home would not be charged for on-campus housing or meal plans for the spring quarter. However, President Fry and Drexel administration gave no indication of refunding students for their tuition costs.
In that same email to students, Fry wrote, “just as with online courses offered through Drexel University Online, normal tuition and fees will apply for the spring 2020 quarter…we are working diligently over the extended spring break to develop engaging teaching and learning experiences to enable students to continue their studies. Fees, in turn, support the creation of a rich online learning experience, as well as other forms of digital interaction currently under development.”
Drexel student Grainger Rickenbacker, however, was disappointed in the administration’s response to the COVID-19 crisis and online learning. On April 8, Rickenbacker filed a class-action lawsuit against the university on behalf of himself and his fellow students. In the suit, Rickenbacker details how Drexel students are being deprived of the “experiential learning” they were promised in addition to various experiences such as:
- Face to face interaction with professors, mentors and peers;
- Access to facilities, such as computer labs, study rooms, laboratories, libraries, etc;
- Student governance and student unions;
- Extra-curricular activities, groups, intramurals, etc;
- Student art, cultures and other activities;
- Social development and independence;
- Hands-on learning and experimentation and
- Networking and mentorship opportunities.
The suit also addresses mandatory fees that students pay for, with that money going towards services that are only available to them while they are physically on campus. Even with remote learning, students are still paying these fees which would typically cover “attendance to athletic events, access to the wellness center and student center, on-campus student activities, etc.” These mandatory fees, according to the court documents, amount to $2,450.
In response to the pass/fail system, the suit argues “the value of any degree issued on the basis of online or pass/fail classes will be diminished” for Rickenbacker and the rest of the student body. Currently, more than 100 class members are pursuing the suit with Rickenbacker, and Drexel could face over $5 million in damages and tuition refunds.
It is likely that Drexel will soon ramp up refunding efforts with money federally provided by the CARES Act. Philadelphia colleges alone will receive $95 million as aid for the COVID-19 crisis, with Drexel receiving around $13 million, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education.
At least 50 percent of the money must go directly towards student aid, but Drexel has yet to decide where those funds will go. With a virtual summer quarter around the corner and tuition bills still looming, it seems that Drexel administration may have to consider some changes for the hot months ahead.