February 2, 2024 - 10:00am

Within weeks of being sent off campus in the spring of 2020, university students in the US began filing lawsuits. These lawsuits relied mostly on a “breach of contract” premise (i.e. that universities charged tuition and fees for in-person education which they were not providing) or educational malpractice (remote learning is a pale imitation of a real college education and campus experience). But, particularly early on, legal scholars and judges expressed scepticism about these claims.  

Last week, however, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute became the most recent in a string of educational institutions to settle a class action lawsuit brought by students over Covid-19 lockdowns, for a sum of $6.5 million. In 2021 Columbia University settled a $12.5 million Covid-19 refund case, while George Washington University settled for $5.4 million over similar claims. Other suits were brought against New York University, American University, the University of Colorado, and Johns Hopkins University: these yielded multimillion-dollar (most between 5-10 million) settlements. Hundreds more such lawsuits are still in progress, as students demand compensation for the subpar education they received, and for lack of access to health clinics, gyms, libraries, tutoring and other services, all while paying for an in-person education. 

Initial assumptions that these suits would be dismissed out of hand are clearly proving incorrect. However, one way in which sceptics were correct is that, in most of these settlements, universities admitted no wrongdoing. And the payouts have been small — in many cases just a few hundred dollars per student, after the lawyers are paid and the funds divided up. 

Given these facts, then, do they mean anything? $12 million is a drop in the bucket for Columbia University, with its $13.6 billion endowment. The university paid $24 million —twice as much — in a class action suit related to price fixing in 2021. 

Despite the surprisingly sparse coverage in mainstream outlets, the settlements are clearly important. Yes, the money is piddly and universities have not admitted that they treated their students abominably, or that they harmed their mental health by banishing them from campus long beyond when they were required to keep them away by public health stay-at-home orders. But the lawsuits could set a precedent for future cases. 

This time around, the suits were settled on breach of contract bases, meaning that the courts agreed with the student plaintiffs that forcing them to go remote was a breach of an implied contract, based on tuition and fees paid, for an on-campus experience that universities failed to deliver. It is possible, though, that these suits could open the door for universities to be held liable for more serious harms, and not just for breaching a contract between students and institutions. The negative consequences of forced isolation and online learning are now well-documented, and could play into future lawsuits against universities if this happens again. 

Overwhelming evidence shows that college students who attended school online instead of in person performed worse academically and struggled more with their mental health. A study published last spring in the Journal of American College Health, for example, found that college students sent home during Covid-19 reported increased feelings of loneliness, depression, and poorer sleep quality. Another report found that students who drop out are more likely to be unemployed, earn less than peers with higher degrees, and are three times as likely to default on student loans.

The same investigations showed, perhaps most astonishingly, that of 2.6 million students who started college in 2019, 26% of them did not return to school the following year, the highest freshman-to-sophomore year dropout rate since 2012. Unsurprisingly, some of those most affected were low-income students. At Michigan State University, overall first-year retention was up in 2022 to 92%, but the share of returning Pell Grant students was down over 1% to 86%, while first-generation college student retention rates fell by the same amount. Educators have known for years, long before the pandemic, that educational outcomes delivered by online learning are, on average, significantly worse than in-person education. 

The fact that the students have won a slew of settlements is important, as is the fact that the tide now seems to have turned in favour of the student litigants. The lawsuits could help establish precedents for larger, more wide-ranging litigation in the future — on the basis of malpractice, for example, for pain and suffering due to emotional and mental harms, or for lost earnings. 

In that light, these settlements represent a significant victory, though it would be a stretch to say that the students got their day in court — they did not, at least not financially. Nevertheless, at the very least, universities may pause in future before forcing their students off campus to sit home alone in front of a monitor — and that’s a good thing.

Dr Leslie Bienen works in health care policy and Philip Marks is a third-year university student studying Political Science and Business.