The California State University and University of California systems have profited from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic by refusing to refund unused portions of their campus fees, a pair of lawsuits filed Tuesday in Los Angeles and Oakland allege.
The proposed class action suits — filed “on behalf of all people who paid fees” for the spring 2020 academic semester or quarter at any of the CSU or UC campuses — allege that individual universities overseen by the systems should have refunded pro-rated portions of students’ fees after the colleges were forced to close their campuses in the wake of the public health crisis.
CSU operates 23 campuses throughout the state with an endowment of nearly $2 billion, while the UC system includes 10 campuses and has an endowment of more than $21 billion, plaintiffs said.
The CSU lawsuit names Sonoma State University student Akayla Miller as plaintiff on behalf of all CSU students who paid fees; the UC suit names UC Davis student Claire Brandmeyer as plaintiff on behalf of all UC students who paid fees.
CSU spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp contends that the lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles federal court against the CSU system, misstates the facts. He said CSU will “vigorously” defend itself against the allegations.
“Although classes were converted to on-line instruction after Gov. Newsom issued his stay-at-home order, every CSU campus continued to fulfill its mission of providing instruction and services to its students,” Uhlenkamp said. “Campuses continue to operate, and many personal services are now provided remotely, such as counseling, advising, faculty office hours, disability student services, and even telehealth medical care.”
A UC spokesman said the university had just learned of the complaint, filed in federal court in Oakland, and had no immediate comment.
The two major California university systems, which serve more than 700,000 students, announced in March that due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, all classes would be moved online for the remainder of spring.
Students who lived in on-campus housing were either told they had to move out or were encouraged to do so. Because all course work was moved online, there was no reason for students to remain on campus if they had other housing available to them, particularly as nearly all services their fees covered were suspended, the lawsuits allege.
Most students, therefore, chose to leave campus to be closer to their families, or to avoid potential exposure to COVID-19.
Despite ending all campus activities for at least that same period, CSU and UC have unfairly and unlawfully refused to offer refunds for the unused portion of their mandatory campus fees — a decision that harms hundreds of thousands of students and their families, the lawsuits allege.
The fees covered student use of health facilities, health services, instructional related activities, student association dues, and the use of student centers, according to plaintiffs.
Depending on campus location, fees for the 2019-20 academic year at CSU ranged from $847 to $4,201, while UC students paid a base student services fee of $1,128, plus additional campus-specific fees, typically totaling an additional $2,000-$4,000, according to the complaints.
But Uhlenkamp says the complaint “misstates CSU’s position on refunds for certain campus-based fees.” He said according to the system’s interim CSU refund policies for tuition and fees, issued last month, “campuses will provide refunds for various categories of fees that are determined to have been unearned by the campus. These refund policies and procedures are available to all students, and requests for refunds are already being (remotely) processed.”
The lawsuits seek “disgorgement” of the pro-rated, unused amounts of campus fees that the class members paid.
“While both CSU and UC were initially responsible in closing their campuses, it is improper for them to attempt to retain what amounts to many millions of dollars in aggregate in campus fees they collected from their students, even though they terminated the services that these fees covered,” said Adam Levitt, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers. “A college education is already a monumental expense for students and their families, and to essentially offer them no relief on these material expenditures, particularly during a time when millions of Americans are struggling financially, is not only tone-deaf but unfair and unlawful.”
“Students’ lives have already been turned upside down by this crisis and the decisions of CSU and UC only serve to exacerbate their pain,” he said. “Through these lawsuits, we encourage CSU and UC to reconsider their positions and make more fair, legal, and empathetic decisions for their students and their families.”
Matthew S. Miller, plaintiffs’ co-counsel, said “thousands of universities and colleges throughout the nation have made fair and appropriate decisions” regarding refunds of student fees and room and board payments.
“We understand that these institutions face their own financial pressures and that this situation is not easy for anyone,” he said. “But that doesn’t make it right for CSU, UC or any of these schools to pass their losses on to students. Many of these universities have multi-million- or billion-dollar endowments to sustain them. Students and their families do not have the same resources.”