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Can I Sue an Online University for Online Degree or Classes?

Yes, and you would not be the first. One of the areas most impacted by the COVID pandemic is education. From kindergartens to graduate programs, schools across the country reacted to the public health crisis by shutting their doors and moving online.

This resulted in dozens of lawsuits brought by disgruntled college students trying to get their tuition money back. Many of these cases are still pending in court, and the unprecedented nature of the pandemic means that many of the legal issues remain unsettled. This article explores two of the most common claims brought against universities, as well as potential defenses and other obstacles faced by students looking for a refund.

Online Education During COVID-19

In March 2020, universities throughout the country replaced in-person classes with online instruction in an effort to contain the coronavirus. As a result, millions of students had their in-person spring semester cut short. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 87% of U.S. undergraduates experienced a "disruption or change in their enrollment" as a result of the pandemic. In total, 84% had some or all classes moved to online-only instruction. The move online prompted many students to call foul, claiming that remote learning does not—and cannot—deliver the educational experience they paid for.

For context, the average undergraduate tuition and fees charged by universities in 2019-2020 broke down as follows:

  • Public Four-Year (In-State): $10,560
  • Public Four-Year (Out-of-State): $26,770
  • Private Nonprofit Four-Year: $36,880

On average, room and board added between $11,500-13,000 in additional charges. Though many schools offered partial refunds for room and board, most continued to charge full tuition despite the move online.

What Is a Quality Education?

Before diving into specific legal claims and defenses, it is helpful to highlight the basic disagreement animating nearly all cases. On one hand, universities insist that full tuition refunds are not merited because protesting students got exactly what they paid for—a higher education. Whether in a classroom or through Zoom, students still received the same information, the same credits, and the same credentials.

On the other hand, students insist that online classes are fundamentally different from the in-person experience they paid for. For example, students seeking reimbursement from Harvard argued that:

The online learning options being offered to Harvard students are subpar in practically every aspect, from the lack of facilities, materials, and access to faculty. Students have been deprived of the opportunity for collaborative learning and in-person dialogue, feedback, and critique. The remote learning options are in no way the equivalent of the in-person education that [we] contracted and paid for.

Barkhordar v. President of Harvard College, 544 F. Supp. 3d 203 (D. Mass. 2021).

As evidence, the students cited Harvard's own recruitment website, which explained that an in-person experience "offers unparalleled resources to the University community, including libraries, laboratories, museums, and research centers to support scholarly work in nearly every field or discipline." Although the case was dismissed in Harvard's favor, similar lawsuits raise the same issues.

Potential Legal Claims Against Your University

If you are thinking of suing your school for moving online, your argument probably boils down to, "I am not getting what I paid for." How does this translate into a legal claim?

There are two main claims you can bring to seek payment for uncompensated benefits: (1) breach of contract and (2) unjust enrichment. Breach-of-contract claims simply try to enforce contractual agreements. By contrast, unjust-enrichment claims seek to avoid unfair windfalls, typically in the absence of a contract. This section explores both claims.

Breach of Contract

To prove a breach of contract, you first need an enforceable contract. Such a contract is formed when three elements come together: (1) offer, (2) acceptance, and (3) consideration. If any element is missing, there is no contract.

Offers and acceptances are pretty intuitive. A university's admission letter is simply an offer inviting a prospective student to enroll, which the student may accept or reject. More abstractly, "consideration" refers to the mutual exchange of value promised in the contract. (No, it does not mean the contracting parties were polite and thoughtful to each other.) For a relevant example, consideration may be a college student's tuition paid in exchange for an education and degree.

In suing a university for moving online, chances are there will be little dispute over offers and acceptances. Instead, consideration will take center stage. What does a student's tuition actually pay for? Students will argue that their tuition specifically paid for in-person instruction, and they may even add that their university knew this all along. Of course, the university will strive to that they got what they paid for.

Resolving this dispute can be complicated because contractual relationships between students and universities are often established in a slew of enrollment documents rather than a single contract. There would be little dispute if any of one of these documents explicitly stated, "Remote instruction is an impermissible way of satisfying the school's obligations." Because this kind of clarifying language is not typically included in enrollment contracts (though language like it may be in the future), courts interpret the relationship contextually to determine whether online courses are sufficient.

For more, see What Is the Most Common Legal Remedy for a Breach of Contract?

Unjust Enrichment

To prove unjust enrichment, a plaintiff must prove that compensation was "reasonably expected," even though it was not contractually required. To illustrate, imagine the following scenario:

In a conversation with your good friend, a local house painter, you mention that you would pay them $2,000 to paint your house periwinkle blue. You say, "I'm going out of town and will return next week. If you don't hear back from me by Tuesday, start painting!" The industrious painter finishes the job on Monday afternoon, leaving the house a stunning shade of periwinkle blue. The painter was sure you would be delighted, and they were right! However, because you returned on Monday evening, you see that the painter started too soon and refuse to pay.

There was technically no contract because the painter started work before Tuesday, and therefore the painter will lose a breach-of-contract claim. Even so, the painter reasonably expected to be paid for their service. After all, you did get the periwinkle paint job and no one expected it to be free. To avoid "unjustly enriching" you with a free paint job at your friend's expense, a court may award the painter the value of the periwinkle paint, other supplies, and labor.

How does this translate to an online university case? Just as the painter did not technically have an enforceable contract, students may not technically have a contract requiring in-person classes. Still, just as the painter reasonably expected to be paid in exchange for the paint job, students reasonably expected in-person classes in exchange for tuition. After all, in-person classes were the norm before the pandemic, as well as heavily marketed by universities.

Finally, just as it would be unfair for you to get a free paint job at your friend's expense, it might be unfair for universities to keep full tuition if it costs less to deliver classes remotely. A court may remedy this by forcing the university to give back ("disgorge") the difference.

Potential Defenses Available to Universities

Universities may raise a number of arguments to defend against breach-of-contract and unjust enrichment claims. This section explores a few potential defenses.

No Breach

Of course, a university may simply deny the breach. The argument is simple: "In exchange for tuition, we promised information, credits, and credentials. We have provided all three through online learning. Although we would have liked to provide these in person, we were not contractually obligated to do so. Therefore, we did not breach." If a court takes a narrow view of the university's contractual obligations, this straightforward argument may work.

No Material Breach

A "material breach" is one that undermines a core purpose of a contract and deprives the non-breaching party of their contractual benefit. By contrast, an "immaterial" or "minor" breach is one that is inconsequential or merely frustrating to the actual goals of the contract. In general, the consequences of a material breach are much more serious (e.g., voiding the contract). Therefore, even if the contract envisioned in-person classes, a university may argue that the move online was immaterial because it did not deprive students of "information, credits, and credentials."

Impracticability

A university may argue that it is excused from performing at least some of its contractual obligations due to "impracticability." This means that an extreme and unanticipated occurrence (e.g., a global pandemic) made full or exact compliance with the contract unfeasible. This is a very open-ended test, and solutions crafted by courts to ensure a fair result can vary widely depending on the case.

Statute of Limitations

A failure to comply with a statute of limitations is probably the easiest defense against a lawsuit. A statute of limitations is a legal deadline after which a plaintiff may no longer file their case. Deadlines vary from state to state. For example, the statute of limitations for a breach-of-contract claim varies widely between three and ten years. To find your state's statute of limitations, see State Civil Statute of Limitations Laws.

Can I Bring a Class Action Lawsuit?

If you decide to sue your school for moving online, the law firm you hire may try to bring the case as a class action, no pun intended. A class action is a procedural mechanism in which parties who bring a lawsuit group their claims together and represent many other people. To bring a class action in federal court, the class must meet the following requirements:

  1. The class must be so large that it would be impractical to handle each person's case individually;
  2. The class members must share common legal and/or factual issues;
  3. The claims and defenses of the named parties must be "typical" of the claims or defenses of the class; and
  4. The named parties must fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.

Class actions are also possible in state court. Though governing rules vary, state-level class requirements generally resonate with federal requirements.

Hire An Attorney

If you are one of the millions of students whose educations were interrupted by the pandemic, you may feel like your school's move to online classes left you with the short end of the stick. As cases unfold across the country, you may be wondering if you have a viable legal claim. A local attorney who focuses on education can help you navigate this unfolding area of the law.

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